Friday, 28 January 2011

Monmouth Coffee

Wathenge Coffee

OK, so Monmouth Coffee is far from a secret, but my aim is to bring you quality, not novelty.  A recent refit, and the arrival of some delicious Lemon Madeleines, is the only excuse I need to remind you what a great place for coffee this Covent Garden resident is.  The shop occupies a tiny space, and there's nothing they can do to change that - I doubt they'd want to.  If you don't fancy take-away (and doesn't coffee taste all the better out of porcelain), the lovely young, knowledgable, mostly arts student, staff will do their best to squeeze you into one of the booths at the back. 

The original treacly wood interior has been stripped out and replaced with untreated oak and some new lighting, making the space much lighter and at least look roomier.  The place has lost none of its charm in the process.  You still get cosy with your neighbours.  If you don't like that, don't go.  Maybe it's the stimulating effect of the drink but, along with a few grumpy encounters, I've had many fascinating conversations whilst knee-to-knee with perfect strangers in here.  True, I've also had to put up with some annoying food bloggers trying to get the perfect photo of a cup of coffee.  I agree with Giles Coren - Stop it!

For my money, Monmouth still sells the best coffee in London.  Owner Anita Le Roy has been running Monmouth for 33 years and is  very much hands-on and as enthusiastic as ever.  She created a vibrant, independent and distinctive coffee company, and it still is.  It shows in the attention to detail and, not least, in the excellent coffee.  There is a growing trend for making a great fuss of the brewing process, generally involving test-tube-like equipment which puts you in mind of a laboratory rather than a coffee shop.  You won't find that here.  No amount of time spent faffing over the beans will compensate for a poor product.  Monmouth source all their coffees personally on regular buying trips around the world.  They make no extravagant claims for their business but personally source from single farms, estates and cooperatives, travelling extensively to do so.  They believe by investing time in building relationships, an equal, fair and sustainable trading policy is achievable.

My favourite filter coffee right know is the Kenyan Wathenge, produced by the New Gaturi Farmers Cooperative Society which has around 1200 members from four villages in the area.  Monmouth's espresso is currently a mix of two Brasilian Fazenda beans, Tunje Grande from Colombia and the Guatemalan Pasajquim.  To take home, you can buy the the freshly roasted beans or have it ground to your requirements.

If you want something to eat with your coffee there is a selection of pastries, Sally Clarke's gorgeous chocolate truffles and, on Thursdays only, the special treat of delicious Lemon Madeleines.  Monmouth  also has a cafe at 2 Park Street, Borough and they open their roasting arch at Spa Terminus, Bermondsey as a cafe on Saturdays from 9-2pm.  Now remember, if you go be prepared to share your space and leave room for me.

UPDATE JUNE 2014: All about Origin at Monmouth Coffee

Monday, 24 January 2011

Rhubarb Triangle

Forced Yorkshire Rhubarb

According to Jane Grigson, only pink rhubarb is worth eating, and in general I agree.  She had bad memories of being made to eat 'green' rhubarb as it was "good for you", but my first encounter with the fruit was clearly kinder.  Even when I was quite small I would pull a stick from the pale heart, cut off the base and poisonous leaf tip, and dip the deep pink fruit into a paper twist of sugar sneaked from the kitchen.  The memory of this wonderful sweet and sour combination is what lingers for me.

I won't get into the argument about whether rhubarb is fruit or vegetable.  What is definite is that it is a native of Siberia.  It was grown for its medicinal properties at least as far back as 2700BC and was thought to be effective in gut, liver and lung problems.  Although rhubarb has been grown in the UK since the 16th century, it wasn't until the early 18th century that it became popular here as a desirable food source rather than a purgative.   The secret of making it palatable to the British was arrived at by accident when gardeners at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London left some roots piled high with garden waste during winter.  By the time they were uncovered, tender roots had pushed through and these were found to be far tastier than the later fruiting rhubarb grown without cover. 

Though this was actually "blanched" rhubarb, it was the starting point for "forced" rhubarb growing which was embraced enthusiastically by growers in Yorkshire and developed into the use of forcing sheds for an early, tastier crop.  So good was the quality that growers in other parts of the country gave up trying to compete.  Today forced rhubarb continues to be grown in a small area around Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield in Yorkshire known as "The Rhubarb Triangle".  One of the oldest growers, and best known, being E Oldroyd & Sons Ltd.  You can even take a tour of the atmospheric candle-lit forcing sheds and experience the popping sounds of buds forging upwards to reach the dim light.  No longer do the "Rhubarb Express" trains to London operate but Oldroyd's forced rhubarb still finds its way to London markets.  By mid-January I am looking out for it at Tony Booth's grocer's arch on Druid Street, Bermondsey and expect to find it into early spring.  Unforced rhubarb then takes over, starting off quite well, though taste and texture are definitely inferior, it becomes quite a different fruit by its mid-summer end.

I haven't tried eating raw rhubarb and sugar since childhood, perhaps I should.  Persian cooking makes use of rhubarb with lamb dishes, and a barely sweetened compote is a good accompaniment to pork, or to cut the oiliness of fish, like mackerel.  These days, if my purchase doesn't make it into a rhubarb and polenta cake, it'll be a sweet compote - the rule is 4 parts fruit to 1 part sugar but you can use a little less sugar with forced.  Rhubarb has a high water content and will collapse into a mush if not cooked sympathetically - see my recipe below.  I'll serve it simply with yoghurt and a spoonful of honey, with a slice of toasted brioche alongside if I have some.  Or maybe folded into lightly whipped cream, or a mix of cream and yogurt, to make a rhubarb fool, enjoyed with a good almond biscuit.  If I have some meringues, preferably slightly chewy ones, and a little cream then it might be a take on Eton Mess like this one.

Rhubarb Mess 
(for 4)

2 egg whites
125g caster sugar
600g pink forced rhubarb
125-150g caster sugar
Half a vanilla pod (optional)
250ml Double Cream
50g sliced, toasted hazelnuts (use folded into the meringue before cooking or sprinkled on top of the Mess)

The Meringue
Heat the oven to 180C.  Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form then add half the sugar gradually, beating until the mixture is firm and fluffy.  Gently fold in the rest of the sugar (and the hazelnuts if using) with a metal spoon.  Place 4 large spoonfuls of the mix on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment.  Place in the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 120C.  Bake for 1 hour then turn the oven off, open the door and leave to go cold.  
The Compote
Heat oven to 160C.  Wash and trim the rhubarb and cut into 1 inch/2cm lengths.  Place in an ovenproof dish.  Add the caster sugar (and half vanilla pod, scraping the seeds in the dish, if using).  Cover with foil and cook for about 45 minutes, stirring gently once.  Check after 40 minutes - the fruit should be soft, yet still holding its shape.  Remove from oven and use a slotted spoon gently place the rhubarb in a bowl.  Pour the juice into a small heavy-bottomed 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 in the fridge, covered, for 5-6 days if necessary.
The Mess
Lightly whip the cream until just starting to thicken (it's important not to over-whip).  Add the meringue, broken into small and larger pieces, and fold in.  Add the rhubarb compote and fold in very lightly, just enough to get a ripple effect.  Spoon into bowls (and sprinkle toasted sliced hazelnuts over to serve if you haven't used them in the meringues).

Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb has been awarded DOP status.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Hereford Road Restaurant

Hereford Road Restaurant
You've probably got the message by now that I'm a big fan of all things St John - particularly 'Bread and Wine' and the Bakery.  Well, now the decision of where to go for a meal just got harder with my discovery of Westbourne Grove restaurant 'Hereford Road'.  This not being an area of London I naturally gravitate to, it has taken a while for me to get around to checking it out.  Well, more fool me.

Chef and co-owner Tom Pemberton was head chef at St John Bread and Wine, before before spreading his wings, which explains why I enjoyed it so much.  Occupying a space which was formerly a butcher's shop has provided a picture window complete with display counter, used to good effect to entice diners.  Inside the space starts narrow, with intimate tables for two facing the gleaming white-tiled open kitchen.  The area steps down into a wider dining room at the back.  The comfort level is a notch higher than anything St John would think necessary, but none the worse for that.

Menus are dictated by the seasons and change daily according to market availability.  Thankfully this is now becoming more common in London, though not often enough.  You will be fed robust British food, focused on carefully sourced ingredients simply prepared and served without fuss.  A particular delight is a starter of Soft Herring Roes on Toast.  A lot of thought goes into what-goes-with-what, as evidenced in dishes such as Beetroot, Sorrel and Cow's Curd, Duck Breast and Pickled Chicory, or Quail with Medlar jelly. Some main courses are intended for two, three or four to share - always a good sign, I think.

Puddings are done particularly well.  At this time of year for fruit we are reliant on our stores of apples so you would expect to find Apple Crumble, and very good it is served with vanilla ice cream.  Sticky Date Pudding, Brown Bread Ice Cream, or Chocolate Cake could be on the menu too, and perhaps Caramelised Quince Roll and Custard (a nice twist on Roly-Poly Pudding). Needless to say the cheeses are the best of British.  They don't seem to have found any English wines they are prepared to keep yet, but a reasonaby priced, mainly French, wine list offers some good ones by the glass, bottle or half-litre.  In addition to the main menu, there is a daily Set Lunch, with three choices at each course, at remarkable value for food of this quality, honesty and integrity - £13.00 for two course £15.50 for three.  If you are in a hurry, there is also a daily Express Lunch of a set main course, a glass of wine and coffee for £9.50.

The food is right up my street.  The welcome is warm.  Service is quietly efficient and sincere.  The bill, gratifyingly small.  I'm looking forward to my next meal.  Try it for yourself and see what you think.

Hereford Road
3 Hereford Road
Westbourne Grove
London  W2 4AB
Tel: 020 7727 1144

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Fishy Business

Razor Clams
Having watched the first instalment of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's "Hugh's Fish Fight" on Channel 4 last night, my timing of a visit to London's Billingsgate Fish Market this morning couldn't have been better, notwithstanding the 5:30 am start.  The campaign Fearnley-Whittingstall is backing aims to stop the scandal of half of all the fish caught in the North Sea being thrown back overboard.  The reason this is happening is twofold.  Thanks to the quotas imposed by the European Commission's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), fishermen are forced to discard a high proportion of their catches.  But that is not the whole story.  Many more thousands of tonnes are thrown back because our fishermen cannot find a market for them.  What many of us, including me, may not have appreciated is that these fish do not live to swim another day but almost all of them are returned to the sea dead.

The policy on quotas is clearly obscene.  Fishermen advocate a better way would be to allow them to keep all of their catch but regulate them by net size, time or weight instead.  Our politicians are talking tough right now.  It remains to be seen whether their spines will remain stiff when they get to the final negotiation.   As for the problem of "no market", apparently in the UK we are so fond of cod, salmon and tuna that we are reluctant to buy much else.  The challenge is to persuade people to change their eating habits, and Fearnley-Whittingstall has proved himself very good at that.  We, in the UK, eat 25% of the Cod caught worldwide.  So I was keen to see if this was reflected in what was on sale at Billingsgate.

Whilst there was plenty of farmed salmon there was far less fresh Cod and little evidence at Billingsgate of Tuna but plenty of Trout, Carp and Tilapia, a warm water fish found in Asia and the Caribbean and now farmed in the UK.  It was hugely depressing to learn that 75% of the fish traded at Billingsgate is farmed.  Thankfully I did see quite a few traders offering Sardines, Mackerel, Monkish and Gurnard.  The traders were very friendly and knowledgeable and the common consensus was that Coley is actually preferable to cod and a lot cheaper.  One real Billingsgate character, who also broadcasts on the subject of fish, enthused about the vast variety of fish and warned of our tendency to overcook.  His secret for perfect fried squid was memorable – take a deep breath, put the squid in the hot pan and when you have to breathe again get the squid out of the pan and it will be beautiful.

There were an awful lot of traders selling frozen fish and a small number specialising in salted or smoked.  The best sight was a pitch specialising in live Crabs, Scallops and Razor Clams.  It was heartening to learn there is a training school at Billingsgate running courses for supermarket employees, schools and the public with an emphasis on sustainability.  I picked up a top tip too.  Buy your scallops from a fishmonger who displays them flat side uppermost - the scallop survives much better in this position and hence reaches your plate in prime condition.  If you get the chance to visit Billingsgate Fish Market, I recommend traders James Nash & Son Ltd who have been trading since 1858.

Apart from the opportunity to buy a whole Red Gurnard for £4, my favourite moment came at 6.00am when outside the main trading hall I glanced into the dock and saw a grey seal pleading for a fish.  He was the best-fed seal I have ever seen, and anyway I had plans for that Gurnard.

If you want to join 'The Fish Fight', you can sign the petition. 250,000 signatures will ensure that a reformed Common Fisheries Policy has the elimination of the discards policy as a primary objective.  You can also think about what you buy.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Cheese and Ale

The Kernel Brewery's Baltic Porter
with Stichelton Cheese
Cheese and Ale?  We are now more likely to have a piece of cheese with a glass of wine, but it was not always so.  Both brewing and cheesemaking used to be womens' work, and both would be done in the home.  From this modest start came our taverns and inns. It's no coincidence that the School of Artisan Food teaches both Brewing and Cheesemaking.  So, maybe it's time to think again about this combination. 

Many people are familar with Stilton cheese, nowadays produced under licence by six dairies in England.  This creamy, blue-veined English cheese has, since the 1930's, only been allowed to be made in three counties, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.  In 1989 an outbreak of listeria was linked to Stilton.  Though this was never actually proved, it resulted in all Stiltons being made from pasteurised milk which was considered safer.  A subsequent granting of an EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) set these requirements in stone, so few people know or remember what the original stilton tasted like.  You may not, as yet, have come across Stichelton.  Looking similar to Stilton, but with a sweeter, more crystalline crust and creamier texture thanks to being made from raw milk.  To my mind the best of the Stiltons is made by the Colston Bassett dairy, but when Stichelton is at its full-flavoured best it would definitely be my choice.  Made at The Stichelton Dairy on the Welbeck Estate on the northern borders of Sherwood Forest, with milk from a herd of 150 Friesian-Holstein cows raised organically, it's a relative newcomer. 

Around six years ago a conversation over a beer led cheesemaker Joe Schneider and Neal's Yard Dairy's Randolph Hodgson to embark on a  journey together to recreate Hodgson's memory of the creamy, gentle flavours he associated with unpasteurised stilton.  By October 2006 Stichelton was on the slate-topped counters of Neal's Yard Dairy and is now stocked by the Dairy's wholesale customers outside the UK (see website link below).  Essentially a two-man operation - Schneider and diaryman Mick Lingard - the recipe continues to be developed but production is kept deliberately small so as not to compromise quality.

Here then would be my cheese recommendation, a slice of creamy Stichelton.  But what to drink?  Porter was a popular drink in Britain for at least a couple of centuries until the beginning of the 20th century when Stout, given its name because it was a "stouter" or stronger version of Porter, took over.  It's widely accepted that Porter got its name from the food market Porters who were partial to the drink.  Due to the natural ingredients used Stout and Porter were considered nourishing and sometimes replaced a meal for the working classes.  Porter is more aromatic, malty and bitter than stout.  The Kernel Brewery's London Porter is 5.4% abv, and it also brews a Baltic Porter at 7.4% abv.  All of the Baltic states brew Porter, theirs being traditionally stronger than London Porter.  Evin brews his Kernel Brewery artisan beers in small vats under the railway arches of Bermondsey.  The good news is that you can now buy them from various stockists in London and beyond (see the link below, and be sure to check-out the youtube video).

The mellow creaminess of Stichelton goes incredibly well with the dark malty chocolate and fruit notes of Evin's Baltic Porter.  This, of course, is the ideal combination.  If you can't get your hands on either of them, then try a glass of the best Porter you can find along with a good Stilton, like Colston Bassett.  Not quite the same thing but well worth experiencing.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Nose to Tail Eating - A kind of British Cooking

Nose to Tail Eating
A Kind of British Cooking
Fergus Henderson
Fergus Henderson calls a trotter a trotter.  If you like your food primped beyond all recognition, and there are plenty of chefs who will oblige, he is not for you.  Henderson has a reputation for serving up the less appealing parts of animals at his London restaurants St John and St John Bread & Wine.  This is not done to shock but out of respect for the animal.  His philosophy being that if an animal has been killed for food then we owe it to the beast to use all of it - from its nose to its tail - and waste nothing. 

Yes, in his book "Nose to Tail Eating" you will find Stuffed Lamb's Hearts, Rolled Pig's Spleen and Giblet Stew.  There are also recipes for Pot Roast Brisket, Roast Quail, and Smoked Haddock, Mustard and Saffron.  For me, a non-carnivorous summation of Henderson's thinking is in the entry for "How to eat radishes at their peak".  It makes me smile, and think twice before discarding anything.  I urge you to look it up.  Henderson is a hugely influential chef in the restaurant world, but he wrote this book with the home cook in mind for " .... cooking and eating at home with friends and relations, not replicating restaurant plates of food".  His follow-up book is "Beyond Nose to Tail" and is just as good as the first but with a greater focus on baking, having more input from St John's terrific baker, Justin Piers Gellatly.