Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Muscadet: the perfect seafood white

Muscadet was one of the first serious wines I tasted. Well, perhaps not exactly 'serious' but 'authentic'. I was introduced to it by a Labour peeress, no less, who took me to her favourite wine merchant, The Old Chelsea Wine Stores in Lamb's Conduit Street. I was young and very impressionable and thought it was utterly amazing to buy wine that way.

Since then I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie which is generally held to be the best of the Muscadet appellations although, like many French wines, it's not that fashionable these days. But it has many virtues, not least of which is that it's a terrific seafood wine, particularly with oysters and the classic plateau de fruits de mer. And it's very good with sushi.

This is one I picked up the other day in Oddbins, a 2009 from Domaine de la Foliette. It's fabulously crisp and clean - just a perfect bracing drink for the dog days of summer. The Domaine is a member of the Terra Vitis association which means that the wine is produced sustainably with respect for the environment. It's also just 12% ABV, an alcohol level you all too rarely see these days.

It sells in Oddbins for £8.99 a bottle or £7.19 if you buy a case. I'm not sure I'd want that many but it's good to have a bottle or two in your wine rack.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tart's the place for cake

I've been meaning to go to Tart for a while, not least because of the name.

It's at the bottom end of the Gloucester Road in Bristol - not the first place you'd think of searching for a high-end café and cake shop. (It's got much more of a hippyish vibe. It's the place I go to buy cheap pulses and spices.)

Anyway Tart seems to be doing very nicely thankyou. On a Friday lunchtime it was rammed to the gills with yummy mummies and their offspring tucking into tarts (obviously) - and a fair amount of cake. There's a special atmosphere when you walk through the door that's quite out of keeping with its surroundings. It feels a bit Chocolat, if you've seen the film - not quite real.

The best thing they do is a Tart Teatime Plate, a selection from their cakes of the day. We shared one (above) which included a fabulously crumbly carrot cake (so crumbly it kept falling over inelegantly, as you can see), a spicy (cinnamon) Tunisian orange cake, a pretty good chocolate cake and a slice of one of the best Bakewell tarts I've ever eaten - all for £5.70 a head including tea. A much better deal than the champagne tea which costs a silly £17.95 a head.

Breakfast also sounds good - they do a mushroom and caramelised onion rarebit which I feel has got to be tried.

And - clever idea - they sell ready-made sweet and savoury pastry at 50p a 100g to take away and make your own tarts. As if you'd want to if you lived on their doorstep, which I'm relieved in many ways that I don't. I'd be in there all the bloody time.

I should say I ate in Tart as a guest of the restaurant but don't let that put you off. It really is good.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tetsuya's truffle salt

It's ironic that having just written a post on the 10 storecupboard ingredients you couldn't live without on my Frugal Cook blog I should come across something that's far from essential but sorely tempting. I mean, truffle salt for heaven's sake! Do you need it?

Well, no you don't but that doesn't mean you wouldn't want it. As one of the readers of my Facebook page commented "I think that a luxury item or two is fine... especially when you live on a tight budget most of the time." Couldn't agree more.

It's made - or rather blended - under the supervision of the Australian chef Tetsuya, better known for his pan-Asian style of cooking.

I was sent some the other day to try and sprinkled it over some cheap steak which I have to say it absolutely transformed, making it taste fabulously savoury and, er, truffley. It also - and this was even more interesting - made the rather rustic red wine I was drinking taste amazingly soft and velvety.

I imagine it would also taste stellar with roast chicken or in mash. Or to season a mushroom risotto.

I also tried the black truffle salsa which I thought was less useful. According to Tetsuya's website you're supposed to stir it into pasta or scrambled eggs which I admit would probably taste nice but would turn them a yukky grey. Or mix it with butter and parmesan, again tasty but not great-looking.

They also sent a vinaigrette for oysters which apparently has "gained a cult following among [Tetsuya's] restaurant patrons". I haven't yet laid my hands on an oyster to taste it with but it seemed rather oily and underseasoned to me. And a vinaigrette just for oysters? Definitely a product you could live without.

The products are imported by a company called The Food Emporium and are also available in John Lewis Food halls at Bluewater and Oxford Street, Fortnum and Mason's, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols.

The truffle salt is - wince - £19.95 for 100g - but a little goes a long way. It would make a great present for a foodie friend - or for yourself if you feel like giving yourself a treat.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Cook - or rather don’t cook

A new shop’s opened up on the Whiteladies road in Bristol on the unlikely site of the former Britannia building society. It’s called Cook and it looks a bit like a farm shop. Apart from the fact that it’s full not of fresh produce but freezers.

I must admit we went in in a highly sceptical frame of mind. It’s packed with frozen dishes to take away none of which look particularly inspiring in their frozen form.

It looked like a chain and it turns out it is - with a startling 32 branches mainly in such genteel home counties outposts as Haywards Heath and Tunbridge Wells.

We thought we’d buy a couple of their dishes to try and you know what? They were jolly good - and I feel jolly is the right word. A bit like a 1970s dinner party - but none the worse for that. You’d be pleased if your friends cooked as well. You’d be ecstatic to have food this good in the average pub (as well you might since they apparently supply pubs and restaurants too)

One was a Wild Mushroom, Spinach and Butternut Lasagne (£3.75 for one) with a really good wild mushroom taste. The other a dish of Liver, Bacon and Onions (£2.85) with a proper gravy. I couldn't fault them for the price.

The blurb in the free 'Cook Book' or catalogue they give away says “most of our customers are good cooks who appreciate good food but Cook exists for those two or three nights a week when frankly you have got better things to do than cook and you want to serve a meal that is as good as your own cooking.” They single out new parents, the elderly and people who are suffering from ill-health as target customers to whom I would add students (assuming their parents are willing to sub them a delivery) and anyone living on their own.

The only criticism I’d make is that their ‘best before’ dates seem a bit lengthy. I remember from my days running a frozen food service (Frozen Assets!) that cooked meals were best eaten within 3 months of freezing. The date on the liver was May 2011 - 9 months away.

If you don't live near one of their shops you can order the range online.

How often do you order food from a takeaway and would you use one like this?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Polpetto: a Polpo clone but none the worse for that

If you like Polpo (which I do) you’ll like its new sister restaurant Polpetto. If you don’t you probably won’t, not least because it’s even more cramped. But it is a clone, so much so that I wondered for a moment if the menu was identical.

Not so said owner Russell Norman pointing out that only a handful of dishes are on the Polpo menu including pizza bianco and ham hock and parsley terrina. But it’s the same Venetian-inspired small-plates-wine-by-the-glass-formula - noisy and buzzy (even on day 1). Only the location on the first floor of the legendary French House in Dean Street is different and even then it's still Soho.

Overwhelmed by the choice we handed the task to him and got bombarded with plates to try.

My favourite was a brilliant osso buco (below) with perfectly cooked saffron risotto, “not very Polpo” as Russell put it (on the grounds that it was a bigger than usual helping rather than it was untypical in style). I also loved the roll of salty smoked swordfish stuffed with lemon and dill ricotta, cured pork shoulder and pickled pepper pizzetta, fennel salami and fig bruschetta and duck and porcini meatball. (Yes, singular. Order more than one.)

Not everything hit the mark - for me at any rate. Marinated sardines, pinenuts and raisins, the classic Venetian (sarde in saor) is one of those dishes that just doesn’t travel - or at least not in this rather messy incarnation. Ditto the cuttlefish in ink although I liked the combination with white polenta (which needs to be ordered separately).

The fryer was having an off day. Zucchini fries were soft and pallid and a heavenly sounding crispy soft shell crab with parmesan batter disappointingly soggy and short on parmesan.

But that’s what soft openings are for and the prices (50% off) reflected the fact that the menu was being put through its paces. The Polpo gang are pros and I’m sure they’ll iron out any inconsistencies. Polpetto is already better - and more welcoming - than most Venetian bacaros. I suspect it will be just as hard to get into as its older sibling. *Sigh*.

Polpetto opens next Monday, August 23rd. You can only book at lunchtime (020 7734 1969). And, as I say, it’s tiny (28 seats).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Thali Cafe's Tiffin Tin

I have a bit of a history with the Thali Café. They opened round the corner a few months ago and deluged us with leaflets urging us to come in. We went, loved it and tried to go again. Whatever time we tried to book they were full.

I suggested they should set aside a few tables for walk-in customers as many restaurants do. They rather sniffily suggested I book a week ahead - for a caff, for goodness sake. So I decided to give up on them and felt very cross about the whole thing.

But then I got an urge for their fresh coriander and coconut chutney (which is amazing) and I found myself down there buying one of their multi-tier tiffin tins for a pricey £20. Which isn't as bad as it sounds as it included an initial order of a vegetable thali and subsequently you just take your container along and get it filled up. The first refill is apparently at half price but I don't know if they will remember and I can't prove I haven't been back in the meantime.

Anyway £7 for a veggie feast that's big enough for two is good in anyone's book. It currently includes - and I quote from their website - Yellow Tarka Dahl Subji (north Indian vegetables), Thoran (vegetables cooked in coconut and spices), Tomato & Tamarind chutney and Rice & Keralan Salad though the picture below, which I took a few weeks ago, seemed to include a vegetable curry. It's also much lighter, more fragrant and less oily than the average takeaway and I have to say a great way to avoid excess packaging.

So, I've found a way to get my thali fix and they've regained a customer. I still think they should set a few tables aside though . . .

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A well-priced Rioja

We spotted this bargain in our local Co-op today and if you get in quick you can snap some up too. It's the Corte Mayor Rioja from the very decent Baron de Ley. We bought the 2005 vintage though my recent press release says it's the 2006 that's on offer - at £5.99 rather than the usual £8.99.

For those of you who are not familiar with Rioja classifications it's a crianza which means that it has to be aged in oak barrels for a year (as opposed to a reserva which must be aged for a total of 3 years with a minimum 1 year in barrel) So it's slightly fruitier and less oaky than an older Rioja but still very smooth and mellow. According to the importer, Bottle Green it's a 'confident wine' - whatever that means. It's also, apparently, fermented with natural yeasts.

I wouldn't say it was the ideal match with our roast chicken tonight but it would have been cracking with a joint of roast lamb or some lamb chops. Or a shepherds pie. Or a Spanish-style dish of pork and beans. Or some sheeps' cheese. In other words a very good all-rounder.

You've got until Tuesday night (17th) to buy it at this price.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Jimmy's Essex sausage

Finding a great sausage is not the uphill struggle it was when I was researching my sausage book a few years ago but it's something, sadly, it's rare to find in a farmers' market or a butcher. Just because you raise - or sell - good meat doesn't mean you know how to make a good sausage* which is all about the seasoning and the balance of lean meat to fat.

Jimmy Doherty has got the art though and you kind of wearily feel, well he would, wouldn't he? He's a good mate of Jamie Oliver's who has spread a little bit of his magic dust on him and turned him into a fellow celebrity. He's now had a couple of TV programmes and books and from the latest look of his website a whole host of other activities including the food and music festival Harvest at Jimmy's which features the unlikely combination of Jean-Christophe Novelli and The Hairy Bikers. Not on the same stage, I imagine.

The good news is that you can now buy his sausages, which I came across again the other day at the Bristol Wine and Food Festival, online. They're made from rare breed pigs which are raised on his farm, using only the leg and shoulder joints. I'm even quoted on the site, I discover, as saying they're 'terrific' and they are.

Order the Essex sausage which is a traditional unmucked about sausage with a 94% meat content and plenty of pepper. They're £3.50 for a 370g, four fat sausage pack which is quite expensive for sausages but more than fair for a meal for two. I don't think you'll regret it.

* Or am I being unfair here? Do you have the same reservations I have about farmers' and butchers' sausages or does your local producer or butcher make a great one?

Monday, August 9, 2010

August’s Blogs of the Month

Lots of good blogs have come my way this month, mainly, it has to be said, through Twitter. I must confess I don’t read people’s blogrolls any more which was, of course, the reason behind doing a monthly selection.

If I’ve only got four or five blogs listed there’s a chance that you - and I - will both get to know a bit more about the blogger though I’m surprised some bloggers turn out not to post that frequently. Makes me feel better when there’s a big gap in my own posts. Anyway here are this month's four.

Kiss my Spatula
Despite the dodgy-sounding title which sounds like something Cartman might say in South Park this one of those beautiful-looking blogs I find so hard to resist. (Check out the homemade fig jam) It’s written by ‘G’ “a girl who loves being in the kitchen, behind the camera and in front of life” according to her bio which doesn’t tell you much (though I like her list of likes and loves). Discovered through Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes who does a great job of highlighting less well known sites than her own.

Paris by Mouth
A really excellent site to which a number of prominent food writers contribute including the lovely Dorie Greenspan whose blog I’ve already highlighted in this monthly selection, Patricia Wells and Clotilde Dusoulier of Chocolate & Zucchini. It has its own restaurant guide (and guide to bakeries and ice cream shops). A must-read if you’re planning a trip.

Pane Amore e Cha Cha Cha
Couldn’t resist the title of this one even though it includes non-food items. It’s a blog “about things I consume” according to its author, Guardian writer Annalisa Barbieri who also has a sourdough blog called The Sour Side though that doesn’t seem to be quite so regularly updated. Terrific writing on both. And a good tip about putting your recipes in Muji folders here. I always manage to lose the recipes I tear out of newspapers and mags - or forget to bookmark them.

Fuchsia Dunlop
With the decreasing amount of space devoted to real food journalism it’s hard to be a serious writer these days but Fuchsia, in my book, is in the class of greats like Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. A recent post on 'Why not eat insects?' for example is tagged ‘agriculture’, ‘environment’ and ‘unusual delicacies’ which gives you a feel for the stratosphere she occupies. Her main speciality though is Chinese - and specifically Sichuan - cuisine. (She speaks fluent Chinese and is no mean artist as you can see if you look at her Scrapbook page.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Denman Hunter Valley Semillon

I had my first wine of the 2010 vintage this week - a Denman Hunter Valley Semillon from Tesco. One of their better wines, from the ‘Finest’ range. They seem to have a schizophrenic attitude to our local (Clifton, Bristol) Metro which has a mainly student clientele but is also quite posh. In fact many of the students are posh too but they’re on holiday at the moment so I guess this gives them a chance to focus on some slightly more expensive bottles.

Not that it’s a bad price at £8.31 but it’s fascinating to see that they’re currently offering it on their website for £5.99 a bottle and for even less through their Wine Club where a case of six is selling for £34.14 or £5.69 a bottle

Turns out that it’s the 2006 vintage which normally would be a no-no in the case of white wine but Hunter Valley semillon, which comes from just north of Sydney, is one of those rare whites that ages really well, acquiring the slightly limey, petrolly notes you get with old riesling. (An acquired taste but one I like.)

The 2010 is still a babe in arms by comparison and you may well find it uncomfortably sharp at this stage but it’ll taste pretty good with seafood, salads - and sushi, according to the back label. We had it the other day with some smoked salmon paté with which it went brilliantly

Its other virtue is that it’s just 11% which makes it a good midweek pour.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Trout at Tadpole Bridge

It's funny how some areas of the country are black holes when it comes to eating out. Where I used to live in St Albans was mysteriously bereft of good restaurants and seems like the area to the south-west of Oxford is too. So we were relieved to find what looked like a decent pitstop called The Trout in the Wind-in-the Willows-esque hamlet of Tadpole Bridge, a place so obscure it wasn't even listed in the index of our massively detailed Philips Navigator road atlas. And needless to say it defeated the sat nav.

We'd have probably given up if the website hadn't revealed they had a Sausage Club on Thursdays, a sound enough reason to visit any pub. It didn't quite live up to its billing which listed a menu of six different sausages matched with different wines and beers but it was still pretty good. A choice of three sausages (Gloucestershire, pork and apple and pork and chilli) with three kinds of mash (spring onion, sundried tomato and black pudding - the latter much nicer than it sounds).

The situation is also idyllic right at the source of the Thames with a picturesque bridge (above) and a few swans sailing by. There's no sign at the end of the road (the A420 from Swindon to Oxford) which means it's not overcrowded. I suspect most of the clientele are locals. They certainly have some interesting cars.

Apparently it has a few rooms which would make it a nice getaway for a quiet weekend with a maybe a hop into Oxford for a bit of shopping. Less touristy than the Cotswolds anyway.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Avocado, bean, pea and preserved lemon salad

One of the great things about travelling is that it reboots your recipe repertoire. There's always some new idea to try out when you get home - in the case of my recent trip to Oregon and Washington State, several. I was particularly impressed by their salads which made really original use of vegetables which are more often cooked. Like beans which were often served raw and accented with preserved lemon peel which seems to be flavour of the month in the NW.

I made something similar at the weekend having rashly bought a huge bunch of celery - an ingredient I feel I should like more than I do, particularly as it's such good value. Sliced on a mandolin and combined with crunchy raw beans and creamy avocado it really comes into its own. Soooo healthy too!

Serves 2-4

3 sticks of celery + their leaves, if possible
A good handful of runner beans
About 12 pea pods
Rind of 1/4 preserved lemon, finely chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice or rice vinegar
3-4 tbsp light olive oil or sunflower oil
1 ripe avocado, peeled and diced
Salt and pepper
Flat leaf parsley if no celery leaves

Wash and trim the celery and beans and slice finely on a mandolin. Pod and add the peas. Put the chopped lemon rind and lemon juice in a bowl, season with salt and pepper then gradually whisk in oil to taste. Halve the avocado, twist and peel then cut into rough chunks and add to the salad. Add the dressing to the salad and toss together gently. Garnish with the chopped celery leaves or parsley

I liked this on its own but reckon it would be really nice with salmon sashimi or barely seared tuna