Friday, 20 May 2016

Finding poetry in a mushroom

Mushrooms by Sylvia Plath

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless
widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes.  We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek.
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiples:

We shall by morning
inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.
Freshly made Tagliolini
Sylvia Plath's poem 'Mushrooms' beautifully captures the strength in the seeming delicacy of mushrooms.  Black Morels (Morchella elata) or Yellow Morels (Morchella esculenta) are more distinctive than most fungi but can be confused with the False Morel (Verpa bohemia) which bears a slightly less pitted cap. Chalky soil and coniferous woodland are their favourite habitat but conditions have to be just right before they will make an appearance.  Amongst other demands is a temperature which doesn't fall much below 5C.  So, early in Spring most morels on sale in the UK have been imported from Turkey but late spring we can hope to be offered UK-grown ones.  Morels are coming to the end of their season, so be quick.

I've written about morels before, specifically Creamed Morels and if the idea of them piled on toast appeals as much to you as it does to me, you'll follow the link.  But today I've made fresh Tagliolini, which falls like the tresses of Botticelli's Venus - yes, I am having a dreamy day in the kitchen!

Once you've made your pasta, you need only morels, shallot, a little butter, cream and, perhaps, chervil, and it takes moments to prepare.

Tagliolini with Creamed Morels
(Serves 4)

200g (8oz) '00' flour
2 large eggs
pinch of salt
a little extra flour and some fine polenta to prevent sticking

50g (2 oz) unsalted butter
1 shallot, peeled and very finely diced
About 75g (3 oz) fresh Morel mushrooms, sliced in two (more if large), brushed to clean
175-200ml (7-8 fl oz) double cream
Salt and pepper

To make your pasta, put the flour and salt in a bowl.  Make a well and add the eggs.  Mix to bring the ingredients together. Either knead in a mixer with a dough hook for 2 minutes or on a work surface, by hand, for 10 minutes.  If you use a machine, knead the dough by hand on the worktop for a further half minute (the warmth of your hands finishes it off perfectly). You will now have a smooth firm dough. Wrap it in cling film and allow to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour (it will keep happily in the fridge for 2 days).

Feed the pasta dough through the pasta machine on its lowest setting.  Fold the dough in two and repeat 3 more times.  Increasing the setting by one mark each time, feed the dough through the machine once until you reach setting No. 6.  I'm short of kitchen space so find it easier to cut the rolled pasta in two, or more, part-way through the rolling to make it more manageable and resulting in 2-4 sheets of pasta.  Lay the sheets on a very lightly floured work surface for 10-15 minutes to dry out a little (I tend to move it around a little to make sure it isn't sticking). This resting/drying period makes it easier to handle.

Feed the sheets of pasta through the Tagliolini (fine) cutter and lay the results out on a tray.  Scatter lightly with fine semolina (flour is OK but semolina is better) to make sure the strands don't stick together.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add salt (correctly it should be 1 litre of water to 10g of salt and for this quantity of pasta you should use at least 2 litres/20g). 
As the water comes to the boil, melt the butter in a large frying pan.  Add the finely-diced shallots and cook gently until completely softened.  Add the morels and cook for 2-3 minutes until softened.  Season with salt and pepper.

Add the tagliolini to the rapidly boiling water, bring back to the boil and cook - 90 seconds is right for me.  As the pasta boils, add the cream to the morels pan, cook gently until slightly thickened and remove from the heat.  Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, stirring well to coat the pasta.  Stir in a little of the pasta water to loosen the mix a little.

Serve with a shower of chervil leaves and with parmesan on the table.  A sprinkle of poetry is optional.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Sweet and the Sour

Basic Country Bread
made from the Tartine Bread
by Chad Robertson

It's June in San Francisco and the thermometer, in what I was assured was a temperate city, has hit 93°F.  We take the BART from the city to Berkeley, home of the University of California, and emerge from the subway, scuttling like lizards from one small circle of tree shade to another.  We're early and, if we'd had any sense would have sat in the shade of the wisteria covered entrance of the restaurant until the clock struck one.  But we're young and impatient and anxious not to miss a thing so, of course, we explore Berkeley in the searing heat.  By the time we climb the stairs and claim our table we have turned into a couple of freshly boiled lobsters, vermillion limbed and steaming in the cool café calmness of Chez Panisse.  Glasses of iced water and Californian Zinfandel soon restore our equilibrium.  The food is everything we had hoped it would be: perky, zesty salads, crusty sourdough breads, an abundance of herbs, and aromas of baking, all combining to reassure we were in the right place.  

I should say I am going back a bit and only hope Chez Panisse (the Café) is as good now as it was then, and on the few visits we've managed to make since.  But this is not all about Chez Panisse, even though Alice Waters' has most most definitely influenced my life.  It's about how that early visit to the USA opened my eyes to the sweet and the sour and made me think more deeply about the food I eat.

There was plenty of bad food in San Francisco back then, and still is I'm sure.  In Europe, good food was the norm.  Three weeks travelling around the USA was mostly a culinary disappointment.  America generally was in thrall to ghastly trans-fats and GM foods.  Attitudes, thankfully, are changing.  I'm sure I ate my share of muffins, pound cakes and pastries that owed nothing to the delights of butter.  This may explain why San Francisco made such an impression on me.  Here, if you looked carefully, things were different.  The Farmers' Markets were proof that San Franciscans appreciated their food.  In came the smallholders, farming their land without the 'help' of chemicals and technology, bearing, according to the season, bright green fresh fava beans and peas; white, lavender, dark purple and striped eggplants; red and golden beets; juicy tomatoes in all sizes and colours; and, numerous summer and winter squashes.  In too came raspberries, cherries and apricots in late spring; luscious, perfectly ripe peaches and nectarines in summer; persimmons in autumn; and, sweetly acidic Meyer lemons most abundantly through autumn and into spring.  These markets thrive still, I'm assured.

"All sorrows are less with bread"
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Another indicator was bread.  It was in San Franciso that I first took notice of the term 'sourdough'.  Although I've since learned that  back then 'San Fransisco sourdough' cultures were often used in conjunction with commercial yeast for a better rise.  After two weeks of eating, mostly, tasteless breads, I couldn't get enough of this stuff.  

First attempt Sourdough

Sourdoughs aren't an American invention, of course.  Until commercial yeast was developed all leavened breads were made using naturally occurring yeasts.  French bakers brought their techniques to Northern California during the mid-19th century Gold Rush.  Breads made with ferments derived from yeasts naturally present in the atmosphere have their origins thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt and with nomads throughout northern, central and eastern Europe.  The French have their Tourte de Seigle rye bread, the Germans make Pumpernickel, in Ethiopia teff flour is fermented to make Injera bread, the Greeks have Psomi, and in Denmark, Rugbrød is almost always made using a sourdough ferment because commercial yeasts are unsuitable.  

Years ago I tried to make a starter dough.  The recipe was long and the starter short-lived.  Never progressing beyond the 'cheesy' stage, I dumped the pot and turned to hunting out the best bread around, not an easy job in a country that invented the Chorleywood Process.  About a year ago I was given a present of a copy of Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson.  And there it sat, a reminder of my previous failure as a bread maker.  I knew he was a revered bread maker and founder of San Francisco's Tartine Bakery.   I knew too that he'd honed his craft working with Richard Bourdon, one of the first bakers in the US to revive using the very wet dough and wild yeast leaven practices of French bread makers in the pre-industrial age of bread-making. Afterwards he travelled to Provence and Savoie to work with Daniel Colin and Patrick LePort in search of "the loaf with an old soul" before striking out on his own.

Finally I took the book down from the bookshelf, dusted off my fear of breadmaking and embarked upon the labour of love that is "Making a Starter".  Sweet and sour aromas alternated in the kitchen over the next week telling me when the starter was hungry and when it was sated.  On first reading, the detailed guidance did seem a bit over the top but it did make me pay attention to what I was creating and ten days later I had my first loaf.  It was so beautiful I nearly cried.  OK, I've recovered and realise one loaf does not a bread expert make.  There is still so much to learn.

Living in London, I've got easy access to some of the best bread around.  But I did want to develop my own bread 'starter' because, damn it, everyone seems to have their own now.  I wanted my own so that I never again had to use commercial yeast on those occasions when I did feel the urge to bake a loaf, knock-up some Chelsea Buns or feed that lingering nostalgia for Lardy Cake.  Quantities of flour recommended in the book can be off-putting - well to me anyway - so if you do want to give this starter a go you might, like me, want to refer to the Tartine Bakery Blog which is more up to date.

Homemade sourdough and marmalade

So, as I write, a little pot of starter sits on the kitchen worktop and every morning I take a couple of minutes to feed and water it sparingly, like it is a living being - which, of course, it is.  Its sweet and sour aromas guide me as to its modest needs.  Another pot sits in the fridge, an insurance policy against disaster striking (Chad assures me it won't happen).  Robertson says, "A baker's true skill lies in the way he or she manages fermentation.  This is the soul of bread making."  And now that I have a 'sourdough starter' I have confidence in, it's time to take a fresh look at those European recipes and, maybe, find that elusive Lardy Cake recipe to recreate memories of childhood treats. But will I ever find Robertson's "loaf with an old soul"?

Monday, 4 April 2016

Coleman Coffee Roasters

Guatemalan Filter
at Coleman Coffee Roasters

I don't write much about coffee.  There are plenty of other bloggers in London who have that covered and there's more than one App for that.  But I do know what I like and Coleman Coffee Roasters pulls all the right levers for me.

Saturdays would not be same without my morning Piccolo mid-shop at some of my favourite food businesses at Spa Terminus in Bermondsey, South London.  Here is the home of Jack Coleman's Roastery and also where, for a few hours on a Saturday, a tiny corner of The Little Bread Pedlar bakery is given over to serving Coleman's South American sourced coffees.  I wrote about Coleman Coffee Roasters over a year ago, so click on the link for some background.

Ceramics by
Anna Frith Hodgson

So why a return to Coleman Coffee?  A few weeks ago there came some teasing photographs on their IG account - a 10 year old Synesso coffee machine, a covetable span of old Umbrian yellow and jade green terrazzo, a beautifully made walnut and terrazzo table and shelf, both topped with lovely earth-toned Anna Frith Hodgson ceramics.

Hundreds of hours of hard graft have gone into paring back the layers of previous uses - fashion shop after bookstore - to the shop's strong bones when it was a delicatessen 40 years ago.  Found items are re-purposed and any additions, like coat hooks, have been carefully sourced.  Coleman Coffee's shop is now open for business on Lower Marsh SE1 and it feels like it's always been this way.

Walnut and Terrazzo Shelf at
Coleman Coffee Roasters

Alongside great coffee there is a lovely Spanish Butter Cake and Greek Papadopoulos biscuits for dunking into a cup of Barry's tea.  More substantially there are Staffordshire Oatcakes with fillings such as Smoked Bacon and Tomatoes fried in whey butter, Ham and Coolea, Lancashire Cheese and Hot Pepper Jelly, or you can have them simply spread with jam.

Staffordshire Oatcakes at
Coleman Coffee Roasters

It's a small place, seating around 18, but there is a great little courtyard space out back with two big sharing tables where you can sit under a jasmine bower and admire an impressive mulberry tree and a pomegranate tree snaking up the the wall to reach for the sky.  Pretty damn perfect.

Into the courtyard garden at
Coleman Coffee Roasters

Coleman Coffee Roasters 
20 Lower Marsh
London SE1

Monday, 28 March 2016

Confit Duck

Confit Duck Leg

Occasionally, when roast duck is decided upon I claim the legs.  A disappointment to some until "confit" is mentioned.  If you have a good plump duck it roasts perfectly well without the legs and gives you the opportunity to make one of my favourite dishes in the world - Confit Duck.

Both Simon Hopkinson and Nigel Slater have recipes for roast duck stuffed with potatoes and onion.  I have yet to try the Hopkinson version, but have cooked the Slater recipe several times with great success.  The one time it didn't work out, the fault lay entirely with the quality of the duck. Pre-ordered and ticked-off the shopping list, I collected it, trustingly, unseen.  A more malnourished bird it would be impossible to imagine.  Other times, the dish has been astonishingly good with tender, juicy meat and crisp skin, achieved by adopting the Chinese way in its preparation.  The potato and onion stuffing emerges fragranced with bay and rosemary and rich with rendered duck fat.  The last few spoonfuls scraped from the cavity are sublime pan-fried the following day.  I only wish I could give you a link to that recipe but although you can find Slater's Roast Duck with pancetta and potatoes on-line, the recipe I use is an earlier one.  It appears in Real Food first published in 1998.

Roasting a duck leaves you with a good quantity of leftover fat for cooking the duck legs.  The word confit comes from the Latin conficere, meaning simply 'to do', 'to make', 'to produce'.  In Medieval times the French applied their verb confire to fruits cooked and preserved in sugar syrup or honey or even alcohol. Later it was used to describe vegetables, meats and other foods preserved in oil, fat or salt.  Ancient civilisations are known to have preserved cooked meats under a seal of fat.  Today we generally use the word confit to describe something cooked slowly and gently until it is soft and succulent and not necessarily with the intention of long keeping.  That's a shame because the flavour does develop with storing.  Confit duck, or perhaps pork belly, are foods that immediately come to mind, but it's a good long and slow method for any meats with a lot of connective tissue.  It renders the meat silky soft and luscious.

Duck legs after marinating 

Duck confit is incredibly easy and, given the cost of those sold in jars or vac-packed, well worth preparing yourself.  Once you've gone through the first 2 steps the meat will keep in the fridge for several weeks so long as you make sure it's completely covered in the fat.  Simon Hopkinson suggests at least 3-4 weeks and as much as 3-4 months.  Mine have never lasted more than 2 weeks before my resolve has cracked and I just couldn't resist a moment longer.  You don't have to restrict yourself to the legs but their fatty plumpness gives the best result.

I use either rosemary or thyme to flavour the flesh, sometimes both, depending on what I have, but bay leaf is a must.  I don't tend to worry too much about proportions but I turned to Simon Hopkinson's 'Second helpings of roast chicken' to bring some precision to the mix.

Confit Duck Legs
(serves 2)

2 plump duck legs
2 tablespoons of good salt
2 teaspoons of sugar
1 bay leaf
3-4  sprigs of thyme or a 5cm branch of rosemary
4-5 black peppercorns
A grating of nutmeg
350ml duck or goose fat
3 cloves of garlic, unpeeled but bruised

Step 1:
Briefly pound in a pestle and mortar or just mix together the salt, sugar, herbs and spices.  Pour half of the mixture into a shallow dish, add the duck legs, flesh side down, and pour the remaining mixture on top.  Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours, turning the legs once.

Step 2:
Preheat the oven to 130C/Fan oven 110C/Gas 1
Dry the duck legs throughly with kitchen paper, removing any herbs/spices.
Melt the duck or goose fat in a solid cast-iron pot over a low heat. Add the duck legs and the garlic, bring to a simmer, then transfer the pot to the oven.  Cook for around 2 hours until the meat is soft and yielding to a skewer.
Once cool, place the duck legs in a clean glass or ceramic dish (or a sterilised jar if you plan to keep them for more than 2-3 weeks), completely cover with the fat and refrigerate.

Confit Duck with onion marmalade
Step 3:
Remove the duck legs leaving behind as much of the fat as possible.  To enjoy them as I've shown above, heat a frying pan on a moderate heat and fry the duck legs skin side down for about 10 minutes until the skin is crisp, then turn and fry for 10 minutes more to ensure they are thoroughly re-heated.

Plain mashed potatoes and Savoy cabbage are perfect to balance out the richness of the duck.  A spoonful of onion marmalade provides a good sweet/sour counterpoint.  Alternatively, they are delicious served with Puy lentils and peppery watercress.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Sweetmeat Cake

Candied Citrus Peels

Following a winter of gorging on particularly good citrus, there's a stash of candied citrus peel in the fridge. Maybe I'm a bit mean but I do like to get my money's worth out of citrus fruits.  It's a frugal point I've made before - Candied citrus  - but home-made is far better than anything you can get in a supermarket and way cheaper than the, admittedly, good stuff from up-market stores.  Having urged you to make it, I notice I've been less than helpful on how to use these carefully preserved peels.  Time to remedy that.

We're talking lemon, orange, grapefruit and cedro, sweet and bitter flavours essential to much of our cooking when you stop to think about it.  Chopped peel has to be in the mix for many British fruit cakes like Christmas Cake, and Easter Simnel Cake.  Ditto Tea Cakes, Fruit Tea Loaf, Hot Cross Buns, Yorkshire Fat Rascals, Cornish Saffron Cake and Wiltshire Lardy Cake (although some would disagree). Christmas Sweet Mincemeat too benefits from the tang of bitter that preserved peel brings to the party.  It goes into Italian Christmas Panettone, Colomba di Pasqua, Panforte and Pangiallo.  Chopped candied peel is fantastic in a Cassata ice cream or scattered along with some raisins in a Bread and Butter Pudding.  A little added to a Brioche mix or a Steamed Sponge Pudding works well too.  You can elevate a simple Pound Cake by either folding candied citrus, chopped, into the batter or decorating the top when cooked with thin slices.  I'm sure you can think of more now we've got going.

Here's another idea for which, as so often, I'm indebted to Jane Grigson and her book English Food.  'Sweetmeat Cake' is an 18th century open tart.  There is also a version of it as 'Sweet-meat Pudding' in Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747).  I always approach these old recipes with caution.  Tastes change.  In this case the recipe was very simple and the ingredients list rang no alarm bells.  What caught my attention was that rather than candied peel providing just a background note, here it has the starring role.  There's a 19th century version of this recipe, known as 'Duke of Cambridge Pudding' which dispenses with the hazelnuts (optional in the earlier recipe) altogether and calls for 4 egg yolks (no whole eggs).  Grigson implies she prefers the Sweetmeat Cake recipe and declares it her favourite of the 18th century open tarts.  For her its butterscotch flavour and semi-transparent filling has a "much superior flavour" to the later 'Treacle Tart'.  I get what she means, there is an almost jellied quality to the cooked filling, and a slice of this is lot lighter and less sweet than a portion of treacle tart.

Sweetmeat Cake

Personally, I'd include the hazelnuts because I am a fan of frangipane.  For this tart I made a sweet shortcrust and, because I have a horror or undercooked pastry, I baked it blind before adding the filling (the original recipe does not).  I've given my pastry recipe here but Jane Grigson's recipe states simply "Puff or shortcrust pastry". I've changed her wording in the method a little to allow for giving you my pastry recipe, but, apart from the pastry, this is just as she instructs.

Sweetmeat Cake slice

Sweetmeat Cake
(makes a 23cm shallow tart)

PASTRY (this will make twice as much as you need, so freeze half the pastry for later):
250g (10oz) plain flour
25g (1oz) ground almonds
Pinch of salt
150g(6oz) butter
75g (3oz) icing sugar
Grated rind of half a lemon
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons milk

125g (4 oz) chopped candied peel
60g (2 oz) chopped roasted hazelnuts (optional)
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
175g (6oz) caster sugar
175f (6 oz) lightly salted butter, melted (gently)

Sift the flour into a mixing bowl and add the ground almonds and salt.  Add the butter and rub in with fingertips.  Sift in icing sugar and add grated lemon rind and mix.  Lightly beat the egg yolk and milk together and stir into the dry ingredients.  Mix until the dough just comes together then turn out and knead gently to smooth the surface.  Divide into two and freeze one for later.  Cover the other half and rest in fridge for just 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C (fan 180C)/Gas 5.
Roll the pastry thinly and line a greased 23cm shallow flan tin with it.  Prick the base several times and rest in the fridge for 15 minutes.  
Line with greaseproof paper and baking beans and bake the tart base for 10 minutes.  Remove the paper and beans and return to the oven for 5 minutes.
Reduce the oven to 180C (fan 160C)/Gas 4.
Scatter first the chopped peel over the tart base and then the chopped hazelnuts.
Beat the remaining ingredients together thoroughly then pour into the tart case.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, checking it after 30 minutes.  The top should be crusted with a rich golden brown all over.  Expect the mixture to rise above the pastry then sink back down a little after its removed from the oven.  Do not worry if the centre part of the filling is a little liquid beneath the crust as it makes a delicious sauce.  The consistency is a matter for individual taste.

Best eaten warm (though it does keep a day), with or without cream.  A very good use for some of your winter stash of candied citrus.  What do you mean, you don't have a stash - Candied citrus

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Barcelona January 2016

Catalan facade

Barcelona at the end of January?  A bit of a risk we thought.  But if we were thinking that maybe other people were too, which meant it could be the perfect time to go.  And so it proved.  Four days of blue skies, warm sun and few tourists.  Bliss.  I've written about Barcelona more than once so rather than repeat myself too much, I've put a couple of links at the bottom of this post.  You may want to get to Barcelona 'ràpid', so here's a speedy roundup for you.

Nomad Coffee (Lab)

First up coffee (and food), which has  changed so much in Barcelona over the past couple of years.  Onna Coffee was on our radar on previous visits but we'd never actually sampled it at it's previous home in Poble Nou.  Bags dropped at the hotel, we headed to C/ de Santa Teresa 1, just above Passeo de Gracia where they have now put down roots specialising in roasting and serving Costa Rican coffees.  It's a great place to start and grab a little something to eat too.  The Polenta, honey and rosemary cake was very good.
Satan's Coffee Corner proved as good and welcoming as ever.  On previous visits it's been hellish to find in the maze of narrow Barri Gotic streets but this time instinct took over and we wondered why we'd ever had problems.  The coffee is really good and the simple Asian-influenced food is freshly made, beautifully served and delicious.
But, as ever over the past couple of years, the one we returned to again and again on this visit was Nomad Coffee.  There is so much to love about their 'Lab' on Pasatge de Sert 12, and I've expressed my own before.  Set in a peaceful, dreamy passageway in El Born, it's a space I feel very much at home in.  They now also have a beautiful, understated 'Roaster's Home' at Carrer Pujades 95 in Poble Nou.

Lunch at Satan's Coffee Corner

For more on coffee in Barcelona, and beyond, I recommend 

Pescaditos at La Plata

Next up Food and Drink.  Bar Zim is a tiny, perfect little bar at Carrer Dagueria 20 in Barri Gotic serving just a few good wines with small plates of Sobrasada-smothered toasted bread and plates of excellent Spanish cheeses from Formatgeria la Seu a couple of doors down.  Very simple and just perfect, I think.
Quimet y Quimet opened in 1913  and a 'must' for any Barcelona visit
Bar la Plata is a tiny placed tucked away behind Passeig de Colom at the bottom of the Barri Gotic.  Another very simple set-up offering wines and beers along with very good fried Pescaditos and Pan con Tomate with anchovies.
Can Paixano proved to be a good pit-stop for a glass or two of decent, well-priced Cava.  The food came recommended but maybe it was a little early for us as we just weren't hungry enough to eat here.  A good place to get a speedy breakfast, I'm told.
We didn't go to Bar Brutal/Can Cisa at El Born's Princesa 14 on this visit but it's a good place to head if you're looking for natural wines.  Just round the corner is L'Anima del Vi serving good, well priced, natural wines and bought-in quality canned fish, pates and rillettes - I just wish you didn't have to bring your own atmosphere.
MONVINIC is often on our schedule for its excellent, and huge, wine list and great value Menu del Dia.  I've got to say the food wasn't quite up to par on this visit.

Two places I definitely want to check out next time: La Cova Fumada and El Vaso de Oro, both are in Barceloneta.

Pescaditos at Mercat Barceloneta 

There are some 40 Food Markets in Barcelona and I'm gradually working my way around them.  There's the best known, Boqueria Market, of course, which for history and atmosphere is a must - at least once.  New ones explored on this trip were the Abaceria Central in Gracia which started life serving a close-knit working class community; Mercat Poble Nou serving a mixed neighbourhood of long-time residents and incomers to this up and coming area; Mercat Barceloneta was the liveliest of the three.  And markets I always love to check out are Mercat de la Llibertat in Gracia and Mercat Santa Caterina in El Born.

Almond pastries at Pasteleria Hofmann

Food Shops I recommend include Pasteleria Hofmann at Carrer des Flassaders 44 in El Born which never lets me down.  Buying an almond pastry and wandering over to the nearby Parc de la Ciutadella to eat it is one of life's great pleasures. The Kouign Amann and lemon cake (which came back to London with us) are also some of the best ever.
Casa Vives at Rambla de Catalunya 58 (and Carrer de Sants 74) is still my favourite traditional style pasteleria in Barcelona for cakes, chocolates, delicious Empanadas and light as air Bunyols (Lenten doughnuts).
Baluard Bakery is a much-lauded bakery opposite Mercat Barceloneta.  The bread looked great but time was running out for us and we weren't able to sample any of the bakes.  One to revisit when we have more time perhaps.  Baluard also have the bakery at Praktik Hotel at Calle Provenca 279.

Antoni Gaudi's Casa Battlo

There are so many 'Sights' to be seen in Barcelona but Gaudi never fails to appeal and soon there will be another Gaudi building to enjoy.  The scaffolding is up at Casa VicensCarrer de les Carolines 24 (Metro: Fantana).  Until recently in private hands, there are plans to open Casa Vicens to the public in 2016 but our visit suggested it might be rather later.

Silver Birch in Parc de la Ciutadella

You might also want to read:

Barcelona Spring 2015

Barcelona Spring 2012

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb!

Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb

When I started 'big' school, the maths teacher was less than impressed with my homework.  He would show his despair at my inability to grasp calculus by writing 'rhubarb', with a furious flourish, across my pages of painfully reached conclusions.  What he meant, of course, was that my work was nonsense, rubbish, worthless stuff.  This slang use of the name of one of my favourite fruits/vegetables (discuss) presumably dates back to the 16th century when rhubarb was grown in the UK, not for its eating possibilities, but, as a purgative.  The increasing appetite for bitter coffee led to  affordable sugar in the 1700s and opened British eyes to eating rhubarb for pleasure rather than purging.  By the early 19th century we had learned, by accident, how to manipulate rhubarb's growth to produce a very different food from the thick-stemmed, pink/green shafts topped by exuberant, non-edible, leaves that grew in our gardens.  I've written about this before so go to Rhubarb Triangle if you want to read more.

Why am I returning to the subject of rhubarb?  Because of seasonality, each year in early January slim stems of soft-pink through to ruby-red 'forced' rhubarb stems briefly appear at market.  And this year photographer Martin Parr has a perfectly timed exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield gallery, part of which focuses on 'The Rhubarb Triangle'.

If ''Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb' is familiar to you it's likely to be for those, supermarket, small pink, plastic-wrapped, decapitated  bundles or, if you're lucky, glowing sticks laid out, untrimmed, on the shelves of your greengrocer's shop.  Martin Parr's 'The Rhubarb Triangle' project digs beyond the beauty of the candle-lit harvesting of the crop and its consumption.  When I posted a snap of what I was seeing at the exhibition, someone commented "It looks like a horror movie."  Parr's project captures the dirty, cold, labour-intensive work of moving the plants from field to shed, its back-breaking nature clearly etched on the faces of the workers in this triangle of West Yorkshire land between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell.  It's an exhibition well worth seeing, along with the fantastic permanent collection of Barbara Hepworth's work and that of her contemporaries.

Image taken by me at The Hepworth Wakefield
The Rhubarb Triangle Exhibition by Martin Parr

On my visit, a detour into Wakefield market yielded no rhubarb and in Leeds market only a few sticks of the local speciality.  I hope this means that local people buy direct from the growers thereby getting the very freshest produce.

I'll happily use my allotment-grown rhubarb in various ways - crumbles, cakes, muffins and jams - but for me, by far the best way to enjoy 'forced rhubarb' is simply, and gently poached.  The addition of one of the following before poaching is good - a vanilla pod; a little preserved ginger; orange zest and/or juice; or a single clove.  Best of all, I think, is to add a teaspoon or two of rosewater just before serving.  Forced rhubarb is expensive - think of all that hard graft - particularly this winter when the necessary frosts have been few and far between.  But it is special and poaching it will give you a pot to keep in the fridge to be eaten by the spoonful, with yogurt or cream perhaps.  Here's how I like to poach my forced rhubarb, along with a great recipe for Hazelnut Shortbread from The Kitchen Revolution by Rosie Sykes, Polly Russell and Zoe Heron.  These biscuits add an accompanying buttery crunch.

Poached Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb
with Hazelnut Shortbread (and a dab of cream)

Poached Rhubarb

1 kg (36oz) pink forced rhubarb
175-200g (6-7oz)  caster sugar
Just before serving - add a teaspoon of rosewater to each serving

Preheat the oven to 160C (140C fan).  
Wash and top and tail the rhubarb.  Cut into 1 inch/2cm lengths.  Place in an ovenproof dish.
Sprinkle with the sugar (if you opt to use a flavouring other than rosewater - see above - now is the time to add it).  Cover with a cap of greaseproof paper and cook for 30 minutes.  If your spears are thin ones they should be soft but still holding their shape.  If they are thicker then give the dish a very gently stir, replace the paper cap and cook for a further 10-15 minutes.  
Remove from oven and leave to cool a little.  Using a slotted spoon, gently place the rhubarb in a bowl (if you have used a clove, remove it now).  
Pour the juice into a small heavy-based pan, bring it to the boil then simmer until the juice is reduced by half.  
Cool and stir the thickened juice gently into the fruit.  The compote will keep, covered, in the fridge for up to a week.

Hazelnut Shortbread
(makes 30-40 small biscuits)

125g (4½oz) softened unsalted butter (plus extra for greasing)
50g (2oz) caster sugar
100g (3½oz) skinned, toasted hazelnuts
150g (5½oz) plain flour
pinch of salt
A little caster sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 160C (140C fan).
Grease a baking tin, approx 26 x 16 x 2cm, with butter.  Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.  Pulse the hazelnuts in a food processor (or bash them in a tea towel) into small pieces and add them to the butter and sugar mixture.
Fold in the flour and salt to form a light crumbly mix.
Press the dough evenly into the greased tin and score into fingers without cutting all the way through.
Bake for 25-30 minutes.
Remove, dust lightly with caster sugar and allow it to cool a little before breaking the shortbread into fingers along the score lines.

For the biscuits in the photograph above, I rolled the dough into a cylinder (handling it as little as possible), chilled it, then cut coins of dough to place on two greased baking trays and baked the biscuits for about 20 minutes.

My maths may not have improved much but I do know that rhubarb is very far from being worthless stuff, particularly when it's Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb.