Thursday 24 August 2023

Blueberry Muffins

Blueberry Muffins

It's more years ago than I care to remember.  It's my first visit to the USA, it's Labor Day and we're driving south from Boston.  Cape Cod beckons but it's getting late and we decide to stay overnight in Hyannis Port.  The bustle of the City is well and truly left behind.  The hotel corridor is bare breeze block.  An ice machine fills the space with a persistent hum, its contents in high demand we were to discover as crashing cubes of ice hitting plastic buckets punctuated our sleep into the early hours.  Dinner at 10pm?  Forget it. A bottle of soda from the vending machine on the 'High Street' is all the sustenance we can find tonight. We go to bed hungry.  Next day we're lurching, the way American cars do, or did, along empty roads under a perfect blue sky, breakfastless.  Then we pull into Chatham - all white clapboard and grey shingle and picture postcard pretty.  We smell the bakery before we see it and declare it good, though frankly we'd eat anything by this point.  There are real muffins and pound cakes, made with butter rather than ? And they taste so good.  

Blueberry Muffin

Now that the English blueberry harvesting season is gathering pace and the price is finally coming down, it's blueberry muffin time.  I yield to no one in my love of a good blueberry muffin but it took me some time to find a great blueberry muffin.  I can't claim this recipe as my own as the only hand I had in it was to convert it from US measures but I've made it many times, tweaked it every now and then, so I know it works.  It may only be a muffin but, like many foods, it evokes memories.

Blueberry Muffins (makes 12)
200g caster sugar
115g butter (at room temperature)
2 medium eggs
250g plain flour
1 level teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate soda
¼ teaspoon salt
115ml soured cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon milk
Grated rind of half a lemon
200g blueberries

Crumble Topping
50g plain flour
25g cold butter
25g soft brown sugar

Pre-heat oven to 190OC/375OF/gas 5. Butter a 12 cup deep muffin tin - I like to line the cups with greaseproof paper squares too.  
Make the crumble topping by rubbing the butter into the flour and mixing in the sugar then place in the fridge while you mix the muffins.
Cream butter and sugar well. Beat in eggs gradually. In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients and fold into wet mixture alternately with the soured cream. Add vanilla extract, milk and lemon rind and blend lightly until smooth. Gently fold in blueberries. Fill tins almost to the top.  Add a spoonful of crumble topping then bake the muffins for 20 minutes.  
Allow to cool for 5 minutes before lifting them out of the tin.  

Thursday 2 December 2021

Five Books for Food Book Lovers 2021

Here we are, entering another December with countries around the world in various stages of restrictions and lockdowns with the inevitable challenges a global pandemic entails.  At this time, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found books more important to life than ever.  Here are my top 5 ‘food’ books for 2021.  As usual there are new ones, a book I’ve been wanting to buy for years, and one that has more than earned it’s place on my bookshelf over the, well, decades.  

First the recently published books, only one of which has actual recipes - partly due to the fact that a couple of others I might have bought have not yet appeared in the bookshops I’ve been supporting.  Maybe I’ll find them in 2022:

English Pastoral by James Rebanks

English Pastoral by James Rebanks

James Rebanks' follow up book to his phenomenally successful The Shepherd’s Life, English Pastoral,  takes you behind the beautiful scenery of the Lake District into the raw realities of life in one of our rural farming communities.  It chronicles three generations of a family and their life on a Lake District farm starting with the author’s Grandfather, working in an ancient agricultural landscape with a variety of crops, grazing land, meadows and hedgerows teeming with wildlife.  Rebanks takes the reader through the last days of working the land in harmony with nature, through the post-war decades of intensification of farming and the devastating effect it has had on the natural world.  By the time the author had inherited the farm, rural landscapes were being brought close to collapse and communities were being lost.  On the family farm stone barns had crumbled, birds had disappeared from the sky and wildlife had become a rare sight.  Rebanks looked to the past to try to restore life to the landscape - putting farming and nature back together is how he sees it - and leave a legacy for the future.  By restoring love and pride in a place, Rebanks believes it may still be possible to build a new pastoral, “somewhere decent for us all”.

James Rebanks has very firm views and not everyone agrees with his approach.  He has reintroduced native cattle to improve his pastures and under his stewardship there are wildflowers in the meadows, birds in the skies and wildlife in the hedgerows on a productive family farm.  His Instagram posts can make farming life look wonderfully bucolic, full of beautiful robust Herdwick Sheep and Belted Galloway cattle, but his words on the real state of farming in the UK and beyond can bring you back to earth with a thump.  He believes passionately that with respect for the old ways and understanding of the complexities of farming for the future, change is achievable.  This is a heartfelt cry for a healthier countryside by learning from the past to go forward into the future.

English Pastoral has already won the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2021 and it’s fitting that it was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing 2021.  An important work, beautifully written and destined to be a classic, I think. 

Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino

Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino

Eating to Extinction is subtitled ‘The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them’.  It is very much a book for our times, I feel and has parallels with my first book choice, English Pastoral.  Inspired by Saladino’s look into The Ark of Taste, an on-line catalogue for foods that are considered to be on the ‘Red List’, that is 'endangered/at risk of extinction'.  You may have - as I did - caught Saladino's BBC Radio 4 Series on this subject.  This book highlights how we are losing diversity in all the crops that feed the world and explains how a global food system that relies on a shrinking choice of plants and varieties is at great risk of succumbing to disease and pestilence.  We should all be listening to this.  And, at a time when science is making important connections between what we eat and how it can affect our physical and mental health, it’s a timely reminder that, as Saladino says, farming, food, environment, diet and health are all interconnected.  

It’s a shock to read that of the 6,000 plant species humans are known to have eaten over time, the vast majority of us now consume only 9 – rice, wheat and maize accounting for 50% of all calories we consume.  Fascinating to be informed that the stomach of a 2,500 year old man found preserved in a Danish peat bog showed his last meal had been a porridge made up of 40+ different plants.  And heartening to know that in the present day there is a community of hunter-gatherers in East Africa – the Hazda – who have a link with that peat bog man.  They eat from a potential wild menu of 800 plant and animal species.

Through chapters looking at Wild foods, through Cereals, Vegetables, Meat etc we are introduced to – and there will be foods here you’ve never heard of – Murnong, a nutritious root  from Australia; Kavilca Wheat from Anatolia; the Ugandan Kayinja Banana (how I’d love to eat a tasty banana again); and, Wild Forest Coffee from Harenna, Ethiopia.

Saladino makes it clear he is not calling for a return to “some kind of halcyon past”, rather he’s asking the reader to consider what we can learn from the past to go forward and “inhabit the world now and in the future”.  There is an Epilogue titled ‘Think Like a Hazda’, which poses the question: Are we being good ancestors?  One last quote from Saladino: “In an age in which not just food but the entire human experience is converging into a mass of homogeneity, the Hazda remind us that there are many ways to live and be in the world.”

An A-Z of Pasta by Rachel Roddy

An A-Z of Pasta by Rachel Roddy

First, I have to declare a little involvement in this book, in so far as I know the author, Rachel Roddy, and tested some of the recipes to get this book over the line in these strange and difficult times.  But I love this book and because of that I wanted it on my 'Favourite Books' page, so, what to do?  Put it on, of course.  Now you know my partiality and to continue reading or not is up to you.

This is a book about pasta, that most Italian of foods, written by an Englishwoman who has lived in Rome with her Sicilian partner for 16 years, time spent learning, cooking and eating pasta.  Like her previous two books, An A-Z of Pasta comes out of an inquisitive mind, a love of the food culture of Italy and a passion for pasta shared with its makers and everyone who cooks this staple food pretty much every day.  There are 50 of the hundreds of pasta shapes covered here and over 120 recipes - as the author says, she knows her limitations but she has put in the work and that shows through in this book.  READ MORE ...... 

This book was a gift from the author who is a friend.

The book I finally got round to buying:

Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book

Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book

It took a spoonful of sublime Lemon Chutney to wake me up to the fact that although the name Margaret Costa was not unknown to me, there was none of her writing on my bookshelf.  And so I am now the owner of Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book, complete with that particular recipe.  First published in 1970, this was Costa’s only major book.  She died in 1999 but she remains hugely influential with fans like Simon Hopkinson, Nigel Slater and Delia Smith, who wrote the forward to my 2020 Grub Street edition.  

I love that the recipes in this book are presented by season – thinking of what foods are actually available in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter is fundamental to my own cooking. Like Costa I look forward to the first rhubarb and gooseberries of the year, the progression to summer and autumn arrivals, then the winter brassicas and root vegetables of winter.

Margaret Costa became known for her articles and recipes in The Times colour magazine, later writing for other publications like the American Gourmet magazine.  I knew her name mainly from references made by chefs and writers to dishes like Lemon Surprise Pudding (which you’ll find in the section on Winter, of course, when the new season citrus arrives); Sorrel Soup for Spring; Tipsy Cake (for Autumn); and, Kippers cooked in a jug of hot water to keep them juicy and leave no lingering smell (works a treat);

The recipes are straightforward, some classics, some shortcuts, all sound.  The book is already a favourite.  

Lastly, that book from my shelf which continue to be invaluable:

The Roux Brothers on Patisserie
by Michel & Albert Roux

The Roux Brothers on Patisserie by Michel & Albert Roux

First published in 1986, this book by brothers Michel and Albert Roux taught me how to make pastry, for which I will be forever grateful.  The Roux brothers shouldn’t need any introduction, so, I won’t spend time on that.  

The Roux Brothers on Patisserie starts with basic recipes for pastry and dough, sponge and dessert bases, creams, sauces, fruit coulis and jelly and proved to be a great education.  The book is stuffed with recipes for all the classic French Patisserie: tarts, cold and hot sweets & desserts, ice creams & sorbets, canapés & petits fours, tea & picnic cakes, and even a section on sugar work (not really my thing).

I have never come across a better recipe for a Tarte au Citron than the one in this book.  And while I cannot ever see myself making a Croquembouche, I can marvel at the photograph of the spectacular one in here and know it is not beyond possibility.  Invaluable.  

Looking forward to 2022 I have already pre-ordered The Last Bite: A Whole New Approach to Making Desserts Through the Year by Anna Higham (aka Anna at the Table) giving me something to look forward to in late Spring.

Whichever books you choose, happy reading.  

Sunday 1 August 2021

An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes by Rachel Roddy

An A-Z of Pasta by Rachel Roddy

First, I have to declare a little involvement in this book, in so far as I know the author, Rachel Roddy, and tested some of the recipes to get this book over the line in these strange and difficult times.  But I love this book and because of that I wanted it on my 'Favourite Books' page, so, what to do?  Put it on, of course.  Now you know my partiality and to continue reading or not is up to you.

Vermicelli with clams, courgettes, almonds  & breadcrumbs
An A-Z of Pasta

This is a book about pasta, that most Italian of foods, written by an Englishwoman who has lived in Rome with her Sicilian partner for 16 years, time spent learning, cooking and eating pasta.  Like her previous two books, an A-Z of Pasta comes out of an inquisitive mind, a love of the food culture of Italy and a passion for pasta shared with its makers and everyone who cooks this staple food pretty much every day.  There are 50 of the hundreds of pasta shapes covered here and over 120 recipes - as the author says, she knows her limitations but she has put in the work and that shows through in this book.

It's hard to think of a more travelled food than pasta.  How many millions of us around the world have a shelf full of packets of pasta shapes I wonder.  This book starts with a quick, practical guide pointing the reader to recipes to suit those shapes most of us habitually have to hand - invaluable for when the direction of dinner needs deciding pronto.  There's also a succinct explanation of fresh and dried pastas and how different flours and treatments produce particular shapes and textures suited to particular sauces.  Launching into the A-Z of Shapes, each starts with a Story which, for me, serves to enhance my appetite for the Sauces and Recipes that follow.  

Making Orecchiette
An A-Z of Pasta

What could be a better start than A for Alfabeto?  One of the tiny pastina that needs nothing but a good brodo to satisfy, be it a child chasing the letters to find its name in a bowl - there's a Story about that - or an adult savouring the delight of a good, simple broth.  I had a moment's disappointment when I saw the the lovely brothy Peas Roman Style with Anelli (little rings) hadn't made it to the final edit, only to find the recipe had shape-shifted to Q for Quadrucci (little squares).  M for Malfade comes with a helping of sobering history as well as tomato sauce and ricotta.  M is also for Maltagliati, the "badly cut" pasta, its lack of uniformity being one that we can all make with confidence and perfect to add to a Chickpea and chestnut soup.  V for Vermicelli evokes a visit to the church of Santa Maria dell'Orto marvelling at the stained glass and mosaics celebrating the Food Guilds of Rome and is simply matched with clams.  But V is also for the voluptuous Vincisgrassi, described by some as a "Baroque Lasagne" for the richness of its ingredients.  The version here is inspired by the dish that Ann and Franco Taruschio used to serve at the the iconic Walnut Tree Inn in Wales.  Having been lucky enough to eat it there once, this makes me very happy.

There's plenty of hand-holding on the subject of matching shapes with sauces and recommendations for the best alternative shapes to stop you chasing around looking for that elusive Mezze Maniche or Trofie when it's not essential to the dish.  The parts played by the geometry of the pasta and the geography dictating ingredients are touched upon.  Fresh and dried pastas all have their place here and tinned or frozen ingredients are not disparaged.  A lot of the recipes are quick and easy, yet you will find encouragement here too to make a time-consuming Tortellini - I've made it, I know - and you'll very much want to when you read about the 'snack' of Tortellini with Parmesan cream on page 314.

Tortellini in Brodo
An A-Z of Pasta

The design of An A-Z of Pasta is a treat, as you'd expect if you know the author's previous work, and Jonathan Lovekin's photographs are beautiful and devoid of artifice.  Saffron Stockers's design is elegant and perfect for the subject, with an egg-yolk yellow cover and delightful endpapers.  The dedication is simple and heartfelt  - 'To pasta makers and pasta eaters'.

Rigatoni/Paccheri with the sauce of Roman-style oxtail stew
An A-Z of Pasta

As I write, July has drawn to a close.  It should feel like high summer, yet the day's greyness wants me to turn to P for Pizzoccheri and make the dish of buckwheat pasta, potatoes, cabbage and cheese that would normally only come to mind in the cold months.  Or maybe the Rigatoni with with the sauce of Roman-style oxtail stew.  This is indeed the strangest of years, in so many ways, and comforting Recipes that come with helpings of Stories weaving in history, culture and everyday life are very welcome.  I'm pleased to have them on my bookshelf and, now, on my Favourite Books page.

This book was a gift from the author
An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes by Rachel Roddy
Published by: Fig Tree, Penguin Books

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Five Books for Food Lovers 2020

Five Books for Food Lovers 2020

I really wasn’t sure I was going to compile a book list for 2020.  In this strangest of years, new publications have necessarily been rather low-key.  A shame for the new authors in particular.  But I took a look at what had caught my attention this year and thought; well, the stack is pretty damn fine.  So here it is.

There’s a book that will make you think about what is right under your nose; one that is a celebration of ten years of collaboration and friendship through food; and a Classic in a similar vein that was published almost 25 years ago.  There’s a myth-busting book to make you question what you are fed; and a guide to bread-making that will help you perfect that sourdough habit you acquired over the past 10 months when the kitchen took on more importance.

Nose Dive by Harold McGee

NOSE DIVE A Field Guide to the World’s Smells by Harold McGee

The ancient Greek word for smell or odour is Osme.  From this Harold McGee derives his word Osmocosm to describe the thousands of molecules that combine to make up our world of smells.  Smells from the routine - wet pavement or cut grass - through the remarkable - vanilla and truffles - to the challenging whiff of swamplands and durians.  The nice and the not so nice.  In this, his 4th doorstep of a book, McGee’s stated aim is to provide encouragement to become a “smell explorer” and enrich the food life of his readers.  

Most things in the world are made up of a mixture of molecules.  The distinctive smells of different foods come from their different combination of airborne molecules, known as volatiles from the Latin ‘to fly’.  A gooseberry smell is not just one smell but many. McGee lays down these smells as grassy, mushroom, pineapple, apple, and floral, and tells you what those molecule are if you want to know – hexenal, octenol, ethyl etc.  

But first, there’s a meal to be had.  In the Preface McGee recounts the experience of “My First Grouse” as a way of explaining the intense feelings and memories a smell can provoke.  In 600 pages he explains puzzles like why fermented anchovies smell of ham; how orange peel comes to have a waxy, paraffin odour; and why green tea evokes the seashore.  How our response to androstinone - the smell of sweat or pork - depends on our particular gene family and why some people dislike the sulphurous smell of coffee or onions and some don’t (depends on the amount of copper in your nose!)  You may never smell in quite the same way again.  This is a book to dive into if you are curious about “the world aswirl right under our noses”.  

Towpath by Lori de Mori and Laura Jackson

Towpath by Lori de Mori and Laura Jackson

A book of recipes and stories based on more than 10 years of cooking and friendships played out in and around the four tiny canal-side kiosks in north east London that make up Towpath, the cafe.  Co-owners Lori de Mori and Laura Jackson and their team serve up good unpretentious seasonal food in a unique setting with generosity and warmth.  The café is open only from late March to early November as its location is no place to linger after the golden autumn days are done.  The opening and closing of Towpath are seasonal markers for locals, though in this craziest of stop-start years our touchstones are somewhat skewed.  

This is a book a lot of people, in London and beyond, have been waiting for and it was well worth the wait, I think.  But this isn’t just a book for those who miss the cafe for those three months of the year.  There is writing and recipes to relish whether you know Towpath or not.  

Lori de Mori provides the ‘Stories’ in the book, and undoubtedly they will resonate with regulars in particular, but there is a love and appreciation of people on these pages that everyone can relate to.  And then there’s Laura Jackson’s food both comforting and full of interest.  Recipes for Peposo, a three-hour traditional Italian stew; a dish of braised lentils, beetroot and ricotta that is endlessly adaptable; and ones like Mozzarella, pickled radicchio and pangrattato that can be put together in a few minutes if you take Laura’s advice and get organised.  I was so happy to find Rosie Syke’s Egg & Bacon Pie in here, and the Armenian Spice Cake recipe Laura was given by chef Davo Cook (Moro, Bocca di Lupo and 40 Maltby Street) who I’ve missed so much since he returned to Australia.  Then there’s the Towpath breakfast dish of Fried eggs with caramelised sage and chilli butter which I intend to cook more than once over this strangest of Christmases.  Oh, and Asparagus with Ajo Blanco to dream about making come spring.  There’s a lot to love in this book.

Lulu’s Provençal Table by Richard Olney


First published in 1994, Richard Olney’s ‘Lulu’s Provençal Table’ probably needs little introduction.  It’s a book most people interested in food and food books know about and speak of with fondness, some with reverence.  Well, it’s a Richard Olney, after all.  An American who moved to France in the 1950s, Olney studied and documented all he learned of the French cuisine and wines he loved so much in several books regarded as culinary classics. The book is Olney’s love letter to Lulu and the whole Peyraud family, owners of the Domaine Tempier Vineyard in Bandol, close to where Olney lived in Provence from 1961 until his death in 1999.  

Starting with an introduction to the Peyraud family, the vineyard and the wines, Olney soon moves on to the food cooked, at their home by Lulu Peyraud, from an appetising list of seasonal Provencal menus to Lulu’s Recipes – surely an influence on Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse menus. Waters was a friend of both Richard Olney and Lulu Peyraud and she wrote the Forward to this edition.  As the flyleaf states, “This is classic French country cooking, featuring everyday ingredients cooked with respect for their nature and flavour.”  The method and ritual of a dish of Bouillabaisse takes up 6 pages but all the simple classic dishes are here from Endives Braissées (Braised Endives) to Lapin à la Moutarde (Rabbit Stew with mustard).  At the heart of Lulu Peyraud’s kitchen were local ingredients – some grown, some found in the surrounding countryside, and those bought straight from the fishermen’s landings or butchers’ slabs.  

It’s a book for romantics but could also be a book for our times, I think.  It was a huge omission from my bookshelf, and one I was determined to correct this year.  Lulu Peyraud died in October this year at the age of 102.  

Spoon-Fed by Tim Spector

SPOON-FED by Tim Spector

The sub-title of this book, “Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food is Wrong”, makes clear this is a myth-busting work.  Here, Tim Spector, Professor of Epidemiology and expert in personalised medicine and the gut microbiome, examines the lack of good science behind many medical and government food recommendations.  He also looks at the enormous influence the food industry has over our food policies.  

Starting with the myths around food we grew up with – fish is brain-food, meat gives you big muscles, never skip breakfast, etc – which are not backed-up by science.  He goes on to explain why calorie-counting doesn’t add up, examines our obsession with vitamin supplements, the rise in sugar-free (artificially sweetened) foods, and the demonisation of coffee, meat and alcohol.  There’s a chapter on the importance of food for mood as well as physical health; one on why veganism isn’t the healthiest choice; and another on why local food isn’t always the best choice (a tough one for me to face up to).  

The conclusion is a chapter on How to Eat – a mere 10 pages plus a 12-point plan that takes up a whole page and ends with the encouragement to ‘educate yourself and the next generation in the importance of real food’.  The book covers a lot of ground in about 240 pages and recognises not everything is black and white.  However, by informing ourselves and questioning what we are told, we are better equipped to make our own choices rather than swallow those food fads and myths we are spoon-fed.

The Sourdough School by Vanessa Kimbell


When I started making my own naturally leavened bread I relied completely on the Tartine Bread book – yes I did make the starter, which took 9 days.  I put my faith completely in Chad Robertson’s uncompromising method of bread making.  And the results were mostly pretty good.  But, as with most subjects, one book and one point of view is not enough.  I needed another to help me understand better what was going on - why a loaf didn’t always turn out the way I expected it to and what I could do to achieve consistency.  This led me to Vanessa Kimbell’s The Sourdough School book – published in 2017 and the book my fellow-bakers invariably recommended.  Not only does the author go into plenty of detail about Starters, Leaven, Mixing, Proving and Baking in step-by-step sections but also she tackles digestibility and nutrition issues that have a bearing on our gut microbes and health.  The recipes take you from the basic Classic white sourdough boule through to much more interesting bakes like Smoked kibbled rye & wild cherry.  There are also plenty of ideas for using ‘discard’ starter, which no bread baker likes to waste.  Helpful and inspiring.  

Happy reading, whatever books you choose this year.

NB. All books were bought

Sunday 13 December 2020

Café Deco, Bloomsbury

Café Deco, Bloomsbury

Who would open a restaurant in 2020?  Anna Tobias quietly opened the doors of Café Deco towards the end of November,  In Bloomsbury, long a dining desert in a rather lovely part of town.  That 'takeaway lunch/wine shop/traiteur' set-up that so many restaurants have morphed into to be able to survive in this craziest of years was the necessary starting point here, rather than the bar/restaurant intended.  Since 4 December, lockdowns permitting, you can book for lunch and dinner.  There was no flinging open the doors with a fanfare - though I doubt that was ever the intention for this beautiful, understated space that has the backing of the team behind the influential 40 Maltby Street.

Anna Tobias already has a solid following in London, having worked with Jeremy Lee at the Blueprint Café, at the River Café, as head chef at Rochelle Canteen, and then P.Franco plus many ‘stages’.  Highly influenced by the likes of Simon Hopkinson, Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David, and with a deep understanding of middle European cuisines, it’s no wonder I love her food.  She’s one of those chefs you know is worth following around and, here, she can cook what she wants to.  Though, like all kitchens right now, there will be some figuring out of what people want and what can be achieved in these strange stop-start times. Tobias has already said there will be changes to the food and how it’s offered over the first few months but having eaten here twice, and bought several takeaways here’s an idea of what to expect.

Minestrone Soup at Café Deco, Bloomsbury

A simple egg mayonnaise was punchy with really good mayo; Sweet & sour onions & radicchio could have tasted of nothing but pickle in lesser hands but the sweet/sour/bitter juices were mopped up greedily with good ‘Stockholm’ bread from E5 Bakery; a bowl of Winter Minestrone came thick with the season’s root veg, white and borlotti beans and their cooking stock, finished with twirly Spigariello broccoli and olive oil - deeply satisfying on a bitterly cold day.  Mains included a bowl of Fish Stew (hake and mussels), fennel, and potatoes topped with a dollop of aioli and a shower of parsley that was not just there for decoration but for its pronounced flavour; Roast Duck, swede cake & watercress was a beautifully light dish of meltingly tender pink duck accompanied by thinly sliced swede cooked slowly in stock, a spoonful of translucent crab apple jelly on the side.  

Sweet & sour onions and radicchio at Café Deco, Bloomsbury

For pudding, were the classic Caramelised Oranges; a light, crunchy Apple Galette served with the best Jersey Cream; and a dense-with-dates Sticky Toffee pudding & vanilla ice cream – heaven for this pudding lover

Fish Stew at Café Deco, Bloomsbury

Some of the wines will be familiar if you either visit 40 Maltby Street or order from Gergovie Wines but, as with the food, Anna Tobias is forging her own path   and there are plenty of others, many by the glass  Notable amongst the reds is a Bodega La Senda, 2019 (Bierzo) and, on the After Dinner list, El Peluso, Verdevique, 1988.

Sticky Toffee Pudding at Café Deco, Bloomsbury

Café Deco may be all hard surfaces but the colours are soft and the lighting warm.  And raise your eyes above door height to take in the beautiful frieze running around the ground floor room, applied with the lightest of touches by artists Harry Darby and Anna Hodgson.  A downstairs room by the kitchen and outdoor seating are to come later.

If you can’t get in to eat at this restrictive time, there are lovely things to take away like Mortadella in focaccia, the deepest, most flavourful frittata you are ever likely to encounter, mince pies, tarts, biscuits, wine and, of course, the kind of store cupboard things we’ve become familiar with seeing in café/restaurants this year.   Yes, only the brave would be opening a restaurant in 2020 but I’ve a strong feeling this one will endure.  

43 Store Street
London WC1E 7DB
Tel: +44 (0)208 091 2108

At time of writing:
Takeway lunch, wine shop & Traiteur Tues-Fri 12-6pm
Lunch Wed-Sat
Dinner Tues-Sat

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Save our Cheese

Neals Yard Dairy at Spa Terminus

To a good cheesemaker and cheesemonger, every cheese is precious, not just for how much money can be made out of it but for the effort that has gone into selecting the milk, making the cheese, maturing it and getting it to the customer at its best.  Right now, in the midst of Covid 19, small-scale British cheesemakers are fighting for their livelihoods.  The reasons for this are well explained by Jason Hinds of Neals Yard Dairy in this extract from their latest blogpost:

Not everyone benefited from the pandemic-fuelled sweep that made March a record month for supermarket sales. In fact, as the aisles were cleared of packets and cans, it became clear that the panic buying (and the big retailers’ response to it) would come at a huge cost to some producers. “The soft cheeses, the blue cheeses, even some of the specialist hard cheeses were all cleared to create space for commodities,” Jason explains. “What cheese was sold was cheap, freezable and grateable.” Orders were cancelled, not to be repeated in the foreseeable future, and cheese rejected or sent back to producers. Add to that the restaurant closures and the shutting or markedly reduced capacity of markets and you have “a double whammy” for producers who depend on supermarkets and restaurants as well as specialist suppliers like Neal’s Yard Dairy for income. 

Some cheesemakers are more resilient than others, at least in the short-term, Jason Hinds explains:

“The gravity of this situation depends on the type of cheese,” Jason explains. “Producers who make blue and soft cheeses suffer the most – particularly as those are the most likely to make their way into restaurants.” While the producers of hard, mature cheeses at least have the option of keeping their stock for a few weeks longer, those that make highly perishable cheeses had no choice but to say goodbye to thousands of pounds and gallons of milk. “In a normal week, Joe Bennett who makes Innes Log and Innes Brick at Highfields Farm Dairy could make 1,400 cheeses. Last week he made 22. He’s pouring milk down the drain,” Jason continues. For Joe and other producers like him, the next month will prove “the most pivotal in their histories, as they face the prospect of throwing more cheese and milk away if they can’t quickly find homes.”

You can read the full blog post here

While Neals Yard Dairy, which is where I buy most of my cheese and other dairy goods, are supporting these producers by taking, selling and delivering as many short-life cheeses as they possibly can, I thought a list of cheesemongers and small shops keeping farmhouse cheese around the country might be helpful for now and into the future.  A lot of them are open and are delivering during the pandemic.  I've put links on each so you can easily check and keep up to date during this ever-changing situation.  The list is, of course, not comprehensive but it’s a start and it can be added to.

Where to buy British and Irish Farmhouse Cheeses now:

Some small-scale cheesemakers are now selling direct, including makers of:
Stichelton - Stichelton Dairy, Welbeck Estate, Worksop, Nottingham 
Kirkham's Lancashire - Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire, Goosnargh, Preston, Lancs
Baron Bigod - Fen Farm Dairy, Bungay, Suffolk
Lincolnshire Poacher - Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese, Alford, Lincolnshire
Westcombe Cheddar, Duckett's Caerphilly & Ricotta,  - Westcombe Dairy, Evercreech, Somerset
Kappacasein - Kappacasein Dairy, Spa Terminus, Bermondsey, London

Natoora - recently added Neals Yard Dairy cheeses to their deliveries

Welbeck Farm Shop, Welbeck, Worksop, Nottingham
The Courtyard Dairy, Austwick, Nr Settle, N. Yorks
The Little Deli, Hitchen, Herts
The Farm, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Chorlton Cheesemongers, Chorlton, Manchester
Cartmel Cheeses, Cartmel, Cumbria 
Cheese Please, Lewes, East Sussex

And, if you can only go to supermarkets at this time, why not ask 'where's the British Farmhouse Cheese?'.  I hope to see more shops join this list.

Sunday 15 December 2019

Five books for food lovers 2019

There are so many ‘best of’ cookbook lists around at this time of year.  If you can bring yourself to read another, here’s my top 5 pick for 2019.  I’ve read and cooked from them all.  Only two are new publications.  For me, they really stand out in this year’s barrage of books.  The other three books are vintage, much-loved ones that have done more than teach me to cook.  They are still continually taken down from my bookshelf and that's why they make this list.

The New:

My top two of the new are simply books that are full of recipes I really do want to cook.

Sardine by Alex Jackson is stuffed with ‘Simple, seasonal, southern French cooking’ recipes.  It’s broken down into chapters covering the four seasons with a Grande Bouffe or two per season – a Cous-cous for summer; an autumnal grand alioli feast.  There are dishes as quick and simple as Cold almond, melon & pastis soup; Roast hake, samphire & tomato salad; and buttery Fried ceps & persillade.  And a more time-consuming rich, saffron-spiked Bourride; Nicoise-style porchetta; and, Beef shin, chestnuts, wet polenta & gruyere.  Alex’s recipe for a classic Clafoutis is the best I’ve ever come across and his Apricot & brown butter tart is a dream – I’ve substituted both pears and prunes to successfully extend the season of this one.  Check out the book’s end pages for the author’s influences and to see what a good kitchen bookshelf of southern French cooking looks like.  There is little in this book that I don’t want to cook. 
Published by Pavilion

Pasta Grannies by Vicky Bennison is subtitled The secrets of Italy’s best home cooks’.  As the author points out, “All Italians know their grandmothers are the best cooks” partly, of course, “ because they are served food with a liberal sprinkle of adoration”.  It’s the pasta-making knowledge of these Italian women who learned, in tough times, how to prepare everything from scratch and to make a few good ingredients go further through the vehicle of pasta.  This book comes out of the YouTube Channel, Pasta Grannies, which has been a little addiction for many thousands of people, including me, over the past five years.  The book, and the Channel, are a celebration of these previously unsung home cooks and a record of traditions in a rapidly changing food culture.  There are sound, intensively tried and tested recipes for fresh pastas from the Dolomites in the north to the tip of Sicily in the south.  There are portraits of no-nonsense Nonnas like Ida with her Agnolotti del Plin and Rosa with a dish of Maccheroni with salt cod and dried peppers.  I can tell you Franca’s Classic lasagne with Bolognese works wonderfully, as does Vanda’s Cappellacci with Pumpkin.  I think it will take me some time to get up to the speed of these Grannies but there’s plenty more to want to emulate.

Pasta Grannies by Vicky Bennison 
Published by Hardie Grant Books

The Vintage (all still in print):

If you have few food traditions and virtually no learning at mother’s knee to draw on, you need a comprehensive general cookbook and a ‘Guru’ or two.

My first food book covers the general.  It was a pre-loved gift, and it keeps on giving to this day.  It’s a 1976 edition of The Cookery Year, a Reader’s Digest publication that has been through many editions over the years.  My copy includes contributions from great writers like Derek Cooper, Margaret Costa, Jane Grigson and Katie Stewart.  With chapters on ‘Buying for Quality’ and  ‘Twelve Months of Recipes’, its 500+ recipes are all centred around fresh, seasonal food.  The influence of this book, and these writers, on my own thinking about food is clear.  I am, and always will be, an advocate for using the best ingredients (which doesn’t mean the most expensive or most travelled), in season and cooked simply.  Photography is real – don’t expect 1970s kitsch here – supplemented by some lovely illustrations from artists like Denys Ovenden.
Published by Reader’s Digest

Jane Grigson is my first ‘Guru’.  I could have highlighted any of her books here but as I love fruit-growing particularly, I’ve chosen her Fruit Book.  The depth of Jane Grigson’s food knowledge, the breadth of her interests and the lyricism of her writing combine to make her the most readable of writers.  A glance at her Acknowledgements page in this book, first published in 1982, tells you how well she informed herself in preparation for writing.  It is an A-Z of fruit and, therefore, ideal for dipping into when you want to know how best to make use of, say, that punnet of sour gooseberries you’ve just acquired or that glut of ripe strawberries.  The cracked spine and splattered pages of my own copy testifies to how useful I find this book.  But it is more than a source of quick inspiration.  Open the page at ‘Fig’ and you will be treated to two fascinating pages covering cultivation, religion, art, folklore, sexuality, poetry, medicine and opinion.  Beautifully simple recipes follow, from Duck in Port Wine and Figs to Spanish Fig Ice Cream, and Mme Verdier’s Black Fig Jam.  
Published by Penguin Books

And then there’s Simon Hopkinson, a guiding-light to many.  Again, it’s hard to choose which of his books to single out but Roast Chicken and Other Stories, written with the help of food journalist Lindsey Bareham, is so perfectly formed that I have to go for it.  Organised in chapters based on Hopkinson's favourite ingredients, the recipes are so good you just long for chapters on ingredients he hasn't covered - then you buy his follow-up book "second helpings of roast chicken".  Simon Hopkinson’s food, as he says himself, is designed to please rather than to impress.  He is a chef/writer with very strong opinions and there is no-one better to knock any pretentiousness out of your cooking.  He will teach you to appreciate a few good ingredients, make you think about what goes with what and how to keep things simple.  And his recipes always, always work.  You may have to settle for a paperback copy of this one.

Roast Chicken and Other Stories
Published by Ebury Press

Thursday 28 February 2019

Landrace Bakery

White Sourdough
Landrace Bakery, Bath

It's hard to believe that less than 10 years ago it was difficult to buy a good loaf of bread in much of the UK.  We all know why.  The Chorleywood Process has a lot to answer for.  Not just for propagating bad 'bread' but for turning it into such a cheap commodity that small independent bakeries couldn't compete with the fast, mechanised production process it introduced.  Bakeries disappeared from the high street.  It's been a long haul but now most towns boast a decent baker using traditional leaven methods of baking, though they'll most likely be found well away from the High Street.  Many of us even make our own bread from time to time in homes where pots of sourdough starter rise and fall on many a kitchen work surface.  But it's a time-consuming activity, and it's the time - the thing those Chorleywood scientists were so focussed on reducing - that really matters.  Stripped of the hydrogenated fats, the flour treatment agent, the bleach, the emulsifiers and preservatives we are left with flour, water, salt, which requires an injection of time.  With the return to basics, some bakers are now turning their attention to the quality of the ingredients, which means the grains - the growing, the milling and the using.  And it's this, along with producing excellent bakes that is the focus of attention at Landrace Bakery which opened last week in Bath.

Producing naturally leavened sourdough from organic British-grown stone-milled flours they are already producing outstanding loaves with a moist crumb and really satisfying depth of flavour.  It would be hard to think of a more intimate bakery.  The baking is within easy ogling distance of the counter which is stacked with dough and pastry bakes.  So if you're looking for lunch and can't choose between pumpkin and ricotta pastries or a Westcombe cheese toastie, you can keep an eye on the progress of the sausage rolls puffing up beautifully in the oven.  There's a light-filled cafe area with a window which opens onto the street in summer.

at Landrace Bakery, Bath

Sourcing is clearly very important to Landrace Bakery.  Ricotta and cheddar from Somerset's Westcombe Dairy, eggs from Cacklebean Farm in Gloucestershire, butter from Fen Farm Dairy, flours from Gilchesters Organics, chocolate from Pump Street, coffee from Workshop Coffee and fabulously fresh salad leaves from Bath grower Undercliff Urban Farm.  It's an impressive ingredients list which Landrace Bakery are certainly doing justice to.  For the moment they have a small milling machine to experiment with whole grains, and interesting plans for a "flour club" for customers.

You'll find Landrace Bakery close enough to the city centre but off the tourist drag, on Walcott Street.  A few doors down from the Fine Cheese Company, Landrace fits perfectly into what's known as the 'Artisan Quarter' of Bath.  On my visit locals were pitching up to try out the newcomer to the neighbourhood, and they seemed as taken with their new bakery as I was.

So why the name Landrace Bakery?  Broadly speaking,  'Landrace' translates as a 'domesticated animal or cultivated plant which has, over a long period of time, adapted to the local natural environment in which it lives'.  The name, I believe, tells you a lot about the intentions of Landrace Bakery.  This place is only going to get better with time.

Landrace Bakery
61 Walcot Street
Bath BA1 5BN

Friday 14 December 2018

Five books for food lovers 2018

Five books for food lovers 2018

Halfway through December, it's time to remember the food books that have proved deserving of their shelf space in 2018.  From this year's publications, there's a book of no-nonsense do-able food that banished my preconceptions of German cuisine.  Summing-up traditional home-cooked German food as “gently spiced, smoky, buttery, yet sweet and sour”, and as “warm and hearty and vinegar-laced”, the author celebrates the positive influences migration and trade has had on German food over the past seven decades.  For dessert, there's a highly seasonal book on ice cream that will have you measuring your year in ice cream scoops, longing to pick your own blood oranges in Sicily and closely guarding your source of Loganberries.  There's a 2017 publication that slipped my net last year and I'm so glad I finally scooped it up for its attention to seasonality and ingredients, and, not least, for its chapter on pasta.  I've included a re-print of a book which was out of print for some 70 years.  And there's a memoir of a true food hero to round things off.  

Caraway Dumplings with spiced carrot
from Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings
Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings: The new taste of German cooking

I’ve followed Anja Dunk’s Instagram site for quite a while and, like many others, have been charmed by the posts of her cosy, sometimes chaotic kitchen and dining table.  This is no temple to marble and stainless steel, but a true home kitchen.  Jam pans bubble on the stove; sturdy shelves are a backdrop, packed to capacity with hand-made bowls and jars of essential nuts, dried fruits, pulses and grains; tiny hands reach across the table for another helping of Schmarren (baked pancake).  Anja is warm and engaging on social media and this comes across in this, her book, Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings ..... Read more ....

Damson and Grappa ice cream
from La Grotta Ices
La Grotta Ices
By Kitty Travers

Before I say a word about this book - La Grotta Ices which was published in June - I have to declare I know the author.  Given the trajectory of her career, I'm sure I ate Kitty Travers's food at a couple of favourite London restaurants before we met.  I love a good pudding, and ice creams in particular, so a good pastry chef is to be treasured.  Then I spotted a little Piaggio Ape van whizzing across south east London.  It was driven by a willowy tall, rosy-cheeked woman who seemed to have found the secret to happiness.  And she had..... Read more .....

Braised fennel and purple olive dressing
from Trullo: The Cookbook
Trullo: The Cookbook
By Tim Siadatan 

I'm late to Tim Siadatan's book and there are so many recipes I still want to try that I feel I've barely mopped a plate, yet here I am recommending it.  Normally I like to really get to know a recipe book before I list it but I have been several times to the Highbury Corner neighbourhood restaurant - Trullo - where most of the recipes were created - so I know what we have here is straightforward "serious cooking" ... "without the seriousness", as the author puts it.  The book is based on the author's initial focus on classic regional Italian food married with the creative freedom which comes from having his own restaurant. Previously he worked at restaurants like Fifteen, St John and Moro.  There's good practical advice on equipping your kitchen: buy quality pans and learn to keep a knife sharp rather than spend money on an expensive one; what to stock in your fridge and dry store; and how to be thoughtful about your ingredient choices.  I've cooked the last of my allotment-grown pumpkins in a dish of Gnudi and pumpkin ricotta that were as fluffy and light as promised. I've served-up Braised fennel and purple olive dressing which was as fresh and zingy as I was led to believe it would be.  I want very much to eat a bowl of Cannellini beans, King cabbage and pancetta.  A Whole baked turbot with poached leeks and aioli is also on my mind along with a Chocolate tart which the author learned to make during his time in the kitchen at Moro (enough said).  And then there's the pasta which is treated with immense respect both in the restaurant and in this book.
By Alice Waters

More than 40 years after opening her seminal restaurant and cafe, Chez Panisse, Alice Waters finally tells the inspiring story of what motivated her to create what was to become the most influential food movement in America.  Living through highly-charged political times, searching for something to believe in, she transformed her nation's relationship with food.  I've been lucky enough to eat there several times over the years - though this is a reminder that it's been a while now - and there are few places in the world where I've felt so completely happy.  It's the first place I can remember where the growers and producers of the ingredients on your plate were celebrated and their work treated with utmost respect.  And it was the first place where I was presented with a bowl of salad leaves that almost jumped off the plate with freshness, dressed and presented with due reverence.  It's at Chez Panisse that I've eaten some of my most memorable meals and the experiences have influenced my own growing, cooking and writing.  

In this book, Alice Waters's takes you, in a very personal way, from her 1950s "Betty Crocker cake-mix childhood", her formative travels through Europe, political engagement and disenchantment, learning the importance of terroir and ending with a chapter on 'Opening Night'.  The author's gradual realisation that "food is political" and that the success of Chez Panisse opened doors to projects she had only dreamed of spurred her on to be bold.  Everything she has achieved is without actually cooking at Chez Panisse herself.  But then, if she had, would she have had the time to put all the pieces in place that make Chez Panisse (and all it stands for) what it is?  Her projects, such as 'Edible Schoolyard' are only touched on in this book.  Clearly, there has to be a second book picking up where this one leaves off.
By Edward A. Bunyard

My copy of The Anatomy of Dessert, out of print for some 70 years, is a Modern Library Food re-print, edited by Ruth Reichl.  Edward Ashdown Bunyard was a Kent-born nurseryman who was devoted to pomology (the study and cultivation of fruit) and shared his knowledge in books such as The Anatomy of Dessert.  First published in 1929, Bunyard's reference to 'Dessert' in the title refers to the meaning of the word in England at the time,  namely the fruit course.  Pudding came after, so, don't expect this book to be filled with any sugars except those of the natural fruit kind.  And what of the few notes on wine?  Well, his love included grapes, of course.  Such was Bunyard's love of his subject that his sensuous writing is full of, as Michael Pollen's introduction to this re-print puts it, ".... barely sublimated fruit lust ...".  His epicurean passions found release in his book The Epicure's Companion as well as writing hundreds of articles.

From Apples through to Strawberries, each chapter lyrically describes the merits of each fruit, its varieties, and when each are at their best.  Many of these varieties are, sadly, no longer grown except, hopefully, in some domestic gardens.  Reading Bunyard makes you long to taste an Old Transparent Gage plum and realise how impoverished our fruit year is today.

I love Ruth Reichl's analysis of why she loves food writing, which she mentions in her Introduction to The Modern Library Food Series- " .... food is a lens through which to view the world." ".... If you choose to pay attention, cooking is an important cultural artefact, an expression of time, place and personality."

As every year, there could have been more than 5 books in my selection, but it's a good discipline to stick to, I think.  I rarely accept a book for free, so, the books I choose are not based on any feeling of obligation.  I hope you enjoy reading about my 2018 personal choices.