Saturday, January 30, 2010

Gorge Best

My 'taste a new beer a week' resolution has been falling behind with this lurgy, today being the first day I've got some tastebuds back since the beginning of the week.

Anyway I've been meaning to report on a bottle which I freely admit I bought entirely for the name - Gorge Best from Cheddar Ales in Somerset. It's a typically British bitter, all hefty and malty - not my favourite style, if truth be told* - but a classic of its kind. And even I would like it in - or with - a steak and ale pie or a rarebit.

The name though is ace, a joint allusion, of course, to the Cheddar Gorge and the great Georgie B (who I admire even tho' he played for Man U). Such jokey names are much more popular in beers than wines which leads me to wonder if beerdrinkers have a better sense of humour than winedrinkers? Or just take themselves less seriously?

* For a more sympathetic assessment, or possibly simply one unaffected by cold, read Roger Protz's tasting note here.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

AOC onions

There's something incredibly cheesy about a French onion man, particularly in England, so I've always resisted buying from them in the past imagining they're bound to be a rip-off. However the onion man above looked so jolly and his onions so tempting that I stopped to ask how much they would cost.

The answer, for a big double string weighing 3 kilos at least I would guess, was £5.50, not bad for what Maxim (for that was, unbelievably, his name) told me were AOC pink onions from Roscoff in Brittany. (The AOC system, as those of you who are familiar with wine will know, recognises products that have a specific geographical origin. The French apparently have two for onions - Roscoff, which was awarded last July and L'Oignon Doux des Cévennes, awarded back in 2003)

Maxim had such a perfect cod-French accent that I wondered if his real name wasn't Mark or Matt, especially when he told me he worked for a Cardiff-based company called Patrick Onion which I failed to find on Google when I checked it out. However there does seem to be a tradition of French onion selling in Wales according to this book which did crop up in the search. There also seems to have been another sighting of him at the Great British Cheese Festival in Cardiff last year.

Due to having developed a streaming cold on Sunday I still have to make full use of them but the couple we used on Saturday night in a tray of roast vegetables were wonderfully sweet. And they do look very beautiful hanging up in the kitchen so I don't feel I've been taken for a ride.

Any Cardiff readers out there who can shed light on the mysterious Patrick Onion do get in touch . . .

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Palestinian couscous

I've always thought it's a supreme irony how similar Israeli and Palestinian food is given the emnity between the two countries. And my latest discovery, Patestinian couscous, which is imported by a company called Zaytoun, about whom I've blogged before, is a classic case in point.

It's the same product - unless there's some subtlety I don't detect - as Israeli couscous with more flavour and a bigger grain than standard couscous. Someone on one of the sites I checked out compared it to the difference between pinhead oatmeal and rolled oats and that's a good analogy.

The standard cooking technique seems to be to treat it more like pasta or rice than couscous - just covering it with water and boiling it until the water is absorbed (about 10 minutes). I found that made it slightly soft for my taste and think I'd steam it another time. It also looks more appealing than the standard version with more definition and texture. I'll definitely be using it again.


Have you used Israeli or Palestinian couscous and if so how did you cook it?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A good value Grüner Veltliner

If there's one wine that's got impossibly fashionable against all the odds it's Grüner Veltliner. I say against the odds because of its hard-to-remember-verging-on-unpronounceable name (grooner velt-leener, for those of you who wonder), and the fact that many people still resist bottles that look like they might be off-dry or German, let alone one from Austria. (Which if you may remember, though I hesitate to drag it up yet again when their quality is so much improved, was involved in the notorious anti-freeze scandal of 1985)

The Austrians are obviously conscious of this image problem and some producers have marketed it with names like GV to make it sound more sexy or prefixed with the description 'groovy'. But these days you'll find it on any half-way smart winelist.

The reason it's so much in demand is that it's absolutely brilliant with food, especially seafood, light vegetable dishes and tricky-to-match south-east Asian cuisines (it's absolutely perfect with Vietnamese food, for example.) And, as I discovered last night when I opened a bin end of 2007 Huber Alte Setzen Grüner Veltliner from Oddbins, even with a classic Moroccan seven vegetable couscous. If you haven't tasted it before imagine Pinot Grigio with more character and a refreshing white pepper/grapefruity twist to it.

I'd call or nip into your local Oddbins asap and see if they've got any. It was selling at £12.99 but is currently down to £9.09 - a bargain for a wine of this quality.


Friday, January 22, 2010

French onion soup reinvented

When you think how much dishes get mucked about with these days it's surprising that no-one has felt inspired to get creative with French onion soup. Until now. Yesterday I spotted an irresistible version on the menu at Angelus in Lancaster Gate and had to give it a try.

Actually it's more like a Franglais version - a creamy onion soup with cider topped with melted Munster croutons and a scattering of toasted cumin seeds and very sexy it looked too as you can see from the photo above. But more to the point it tasted fabulous - smooth and sweetly oniony, not overwhelmed by cheese - just enough to add an extra dimension of richness and complexity. It was sublime.

I didn't get the recipe (I'll try) but I'm guessing that the chef Martin Nisbet, sweated off some Spanish-style onions in butter until they were golden, added a good chicken stock and some dry cider then blitzed it, strained it and finished it off with cream, a few spots of oil (not sure which kind - didn't taste strong enough for truffle) and a scattering of cumin seeds. The croutons, which were topped with the melted, rinded Munster, were served separately so as not to disturb the pristine beauty of the surface.

It made me wonder why chefs don't do soup more often, particularly at this time of year. It's comforting for the customer and cheap for the restaurant who can make a decent margin on it. (It actually cost £8 which I wouldn't have begrudged though they gave me a bowl to try.)

It also confirmed my prejudice that cheese is better added to soup than included in it - I don't know if you'd agree?


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why chefs love Barkham Blue

You can hardly go into a restaurant these days without spotting Barkham Blue on the menu. Every chef seems to be obsessed with it and I've been wondering why.

It's not that it's not good - it's very tasty. More like a Gorgonzola Dolce with a creamier texture than a Stilton and in the best examples I've tasted, an almost mushroomy flavour like a Brie. Maybe that's the key. Although it's flavourful it's actually quite mild and buttery and doesn't deliver that sucker punch you can get from a Roquefort. I've even drunk red wine with it successfully which is normally pretty difficult with a blue

It's made, rather engagingly, by a Berkshire company called Two Hoots cheeses and has picked up a whole raft of awards including British Cheese Awards Supreme Champion in 2008.

Chefs seem to be mainly putting it into salads and featuring it on their all-British cheeseboards. I personally think Stichelton is a better cheese but it's a confusing concept. People, I imagine, just think that chefs can't spell Stilton (which is perfectly possible ;-)) but Barkham Blue is really easy to remember. And cheese, particularly blue, does seem to be subject to fashion. It was Gorgonzola for a while, then Cashel Blue. This year seems to be Barkham Blue's.

Have you tried Barkham Blue and if so how do you rate it? And what's your favourite blue?


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Barley wine: the beer you can drink when it's 10 years old

Having a bit of post New Year clearout I came across a bottle of J W Lees Harvest Ale 2000 that I must have been given to celebrate the millennium. It's what's known as a 'barley wine' - a strong sweet beer, in this instance made by the J W Lees brewery in Manchester.

Most beers would have been as dead as a dodo 10 years on but at 11.5% ABV, Harvest Ale is clearly built to last. Still, it was a big ask to expect it to be drinkable after all this time and I was amazed how good it was.

It was so rich, sweet and dark (see below) it was more like a sherry or madeira, mind you. Only a background note of maltiness reminds you that this is beer but I suggest you drink it like a fortified wine with blue cheese, dark chocolate or a slice of dark sticky fruitcake. (In my view cheese is the best of all three, but then I'm one of the rare mortals who likes cheese more than chocolate.)

It's a shame in a way the weather has warmed up. It's the perfect beer to sip on a cold winter's night. Not that I'm tempting fate . . .


Friday, January 15, 2010

Could Umu be Michelin’s dark horse?

The kaiseki meal I had earlier this week at Umu in Mayfair was not only the best meal I’ve had outside Japan but one of the best all year (and I mean in the last 12 months not this year, obviously) But nowhere has it been touted for a second star in the round-ups of likely suspects for the 2010 Michelin Great Britain Guide which is published next Tuesday.

Given the fact that Tokyo (I seem to recall) boasts more Michelin stars than any other city and the fact that Michelin rates high-end Japanese food more highly than any other ethnic cuisine I think it could be the surprise promotion. (Well, totally wrong with this speculation! They still have just one. Jan 15th)

Actually they deserve three but Michelin moves at a snail’s pace when it comes to awarding its ‘macarons’.

You can see my write-up of what was quite an astonishingly good meal on my Matching Food & Wine website. Unfortunately it’s not the best medium for photographs so here are a few more (rather blurry) examples of the dishes we ate.

Although its prices may seem steep Umu is nowhere near as expensive as a comparable restaurant in Kyoto, the city that kaiseki cuisine originally comes from. Their set-price menus start from £65.

I dined at Umu as a guest of KOJ (Koshu of Japan) which promotes Japanese Koshu wines)

Have you ever been to Umu and if so what do you think of it? And what's your favourite Japanese restaurant?


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A brilliant New Zealand red - not cheap but a bargain

I spent the afternoon today at the annual New Zealand trade tasting - one of the best of the so-called generic (i.e. country-based) tastings. Each year I'm impressed at how good the overall standard is though it usually confirms my view that New Zealand's whites outperform its reds - with the exception of Pinot Noir.

In general I find that that the other reds - mainly Cabernet blends and Syrah - tend to be overworked and over-extracted and after two and a half hour's tasting was ready to call it a day when the guy at the Adnams' stand persuaded me to try three wines from the Gimblett Gravels area of Hawkes Bay on the North Island: a Syrah, a Cabernet and most impressive of all - a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec under the Newton Forrest label called Cornerstone.

So this is basically a style of wine that doesn't hugely appeal to me and which I'm not convinced New Zealand handles particularly well and from a producer (John Forrest) better known for his Sauvignon, Riesling and Pinot Noir. And yet it was fantastic - soft, fluid, elegant, as good as a top-class Bordeaux. And I'm not the only one to think so. In a tasting last year of Gimblett Gravels reds alongside first growth Bordeaux the 2006 Cornerstone came out sixth.

The best news of all is that it costs only £17.50 a bottle which is a fantastic price for a wine of this class. Snap some up while you can.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Curious Craze for Mince'n'Tatties

The oddest fledgling food trend to emerge from London's most fashionable dining rooms over the last few weeks is the Scottish staple 'mince'n'tatties' - basically mince and mash. St John seems to have started it though I suppose to a restaurant that offers tripe and chips and rolled pig's spleen and bacon it's pretty tame fare while the newly opened Soho hotspot Dean Street Townhouse refers to it as mince and boiled potatoes. Hardly a compelling description so what's it all about?

Nostalgia for retro food obviously plays a part. I remember my mum making it when I was a child, adding Bisto to thicken and flavour it and turn it a deep mahogany brown. It had an uncanny sheen as if it had been buffed up with furniture polish.

When I read that St John was serving theirs on dripping toast (now there's a dish worth reviving) I knew I just have to have a crack at it. I actually thought it was rather tasty though my husband, an ardent Francophile, wasn't over-impressed. I left the potatoes whole which I think works better than mash. You want to be able to squish them into the gravy which should ideally be made with gravy leftover from a beef roast. (I didn't have any but I did have beef dripping. You need one or the other - but not Bisto.

Some recipes also advocate adding toasted pinhead oatmeal which I can imagine would be good. I seem to remember my mum using Scott's porage oats which I wouldn't advocate though her recipe is nearer than mine to the one that won the 5th Annual Mince'n'Tattie competition in Tobermory last year. So what do I know? Here's my version anyway . . .

Serves 4

25g beef dripping or lard
500g good quality lean minced beef (rare-breed beef would be good)
1 medium to large onion, peeled and chopped
2 carrots, scrubbed, trimmed and chopped small
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 tbsp plain flour
250ml leftover gravy and 250ml beef, Bovril or Marmite stock (made with half a cube or 1 tsp of Bovril or Marmite ) or 500ml beef, Bovril or Marmite stock
Worcestershire sauce to taste
4 medium-sized waxy (e.g. Desirée) potatoes, peeled and quartered
Salt and white pepper
Chopped parsley (a bit radical for mince'n'tatties but makes it look more colourful)

Heat half the dripping in a frying pan and fry the mince until browned. Remove from the pan and set aside. Spoon off any excess fat but you don’t want to lose all the dripping. Add the remaining dripping and cook the chopped onions and carrots until beginning to brown. Stir in the thyme, then the flour. Add the stock and gravy or just stock and bring to the boil. Season with salt and white pepper and a dash of Worcestershire sauce and bring to the boil. Return the mince to the pan, cover and cook over a very low heat or transfer to a slow oven for 45 minutes to an hour. Meanwhile par boil the potatoes for about 10 minutes, drain and add to the mince for the last 20 minutes of the cooking time, spooning over the gravy and leaving the dish uncovered. Adjust the seasoning and sprinkle over some parsley before serving. You might want some HP or other brown sauce on the side.

There was enough left over to top a couple of bits of sourdough toast slathered with dripping the next day (see pic above). Personally I like it just with spuds. It makes even good toast go a touch soggy.

Does mince'n'tatties appeal to you? If so do you have an ancient family recipe to share?


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Equity for Punks

I've been a bit short on New Year's Resolutions this year. The usual - Be More Organized/Lose Weight/Take More Exercise have something of a hollow ring to them as they invariably get abandoned by the end of January. At least I haven't joined a gym which must have cost me hundreds of pounds in wasted memberships in the past.

However I did think as I was sitting in my local The Portcullis the other day I should try a new beer - well, new to me - every week.

Goodness knows it must be achievable and after the initial 'You've resolved to drink more booze?' reaction is quite a laudable aim. I like beer but I usually drink wine by default. The Portcullis (above right) is literally 5 minutes down the road and always has interesting brews on tap. I can pop down, order a half of something interesting and read the paper for half an hour. Not excessive, not expensive, doing my bit for Britain's (and occasionally Europe's) beleaguered brewing industry. What's not to approve of?

The first beer of the year then is BrewDog's Equity for Punks. Not their Punk IPA although for all I know, not having tried that either previously, it may be similar. It's probably the most restrained of the BrewDog brews being a comparatively modest 3.7% but being BrewDog much more full on than a normal bitter with a pronounced floral aroma and rich malty finish. A good quaffer or companion for such pubby staples as pork pies and Ploughmens.

It also has the same name as the fundraising scheme - Equity for Punks - BrewDog launched last year in typically unconventional fashion which offered 10,000 shares in the business for £230 each. Probably a good investment but not for me.

Not everyone approves of Brewdog's blatant showmanship as you can see this recent post from beer writer Roger Protz. and it's asking for trouble to launch a 32% ABV beer (Tactical Nuclear Penguin) but I like the wit and verve they've brought to the UK beer scene. And I like their beers.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

January’s Blogs of the Month

I pronounced last month I wasn’t going to have a blogroll on this blog and instead pick out a few each month that appeal to me. Here are five for January:

Hale and Hearty
There are better looking, more frequently updated blogs than this one by Guardian writer Emma Sturgess but few that are better written. She was recently voted Restaurant Reviewer of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers and you can see why. A joy to read

Afraid you’ll need slightly more than a schoolboy/girl mastery of French to appreciate this sharp-witted vlog (most of the entries are videos) from Le Figaro’s restaurant reviewer Francois Simon. But even if you haven't you'll enjoy that sexy, gravelly voice.

The Pour
New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov’s excellent drinks blog (he covers beer as well as wine) is a great read - as are the comments from his large band of followers. One of the few wine writers to regularly tackle the subject of food and wine matching - look at this recent post on steak and madeira

Savory Sweet Life
I found this drop-dead-gorgeous looking food blog through The Pioneer Woman - one of my chosen bloggers last month. Alice, a former designer who lives in Seattle, only started blogging last year but shoots pix that are worthy of any glossy food magazine.

India Knight’s Posterous
Posterous, for those of you who haven’t yet clocked it, is a new extremely user-friendly blogging platform that’s particularly good for recording anything interesting you find online. And in the case of magpie-eyed Sunday Times writer India Knight that involves some very desirable stuff. (She should be a shopping editor if she gives up the day job.)



Saturday, January 2, 2010

Top food trends for 2010

Just posted my annual review of food trends for 2010 on my website which unfortunately isn't best designed to receive comments. If you have any views - or suggestions of your own - do post them here.