Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Snail Eggs & Samphire

Snail Eggs & Samphire
Derek Cooper
I'm moving flat and, yes, it is as traumatic as everyone says it is.  Not only has my buyer been round six times and still hasn't exchanged contracts, but now she wants an early completion date.  Pointing out you can't have the latter without the former has not had the desired result yet so I'm feeling a bit in limbo at the moment.  Still I'm confident enough about the sale to start sorting and filling boxes.  The bookshelf is the obvious place to start when you've amassed as many as I have over the years.  The problem is you find yourself rediscovering old friends and reviving past relationships, and the 'discards' box remains empty.

Amongst the books I found myself dipping into again today is Snail Eggs and Samphire by Derek Cooper, first published by Macmillan in 2000.  It's sub-headed "Dispatches from the Food Front" and is a collection of his essays on food related subjects over the 30 preceding years.  For me, Derek Cooper is the investigative food writer without equal.  Starting his broadcasting career in Malaya, he then worked for the BBC on current affairs programmes.  He switched to food journalism in the late sixties thanks to a piece on "Bad Food" which resulted in his book 'The Bad Food Guide'.  Though he is probably best remembered as the writer and presenter of The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4.  Now presented by Sheila Dillon, the programme still retains some of the campaigning agenda which Derek Cooper fearlessly pursued.  

He expertly teased out the truths about what we eat, holding multinational food producers to account when they were found wanting.  In his words he exposed "places of ill-repute that destroy confidence in the way our food is being produced".  He jointly broke the story on BSE (commonly known as 'mad cow disease').  Highlighted the use of polyphosphates in meat.  Presented the truth about the disgrace of intensive chicken farms (sadly a battle still being fought  by the likes of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall).  Derek Cooper's journalism is incisive and his humour and sense of irony make him a wonderful communicator and a much loved and trusted journalist and broadcaster.  He has a deeply held belief that everyone, wherever they live in the world, has a right to good, unadulterated food.  The annual 'Derek Cooper Award for Campaigning or Investigative Food Writing or Broadcasting' is the accolade most food writers would give their eye-teeth for. 

Cooper also brought good news stories.  Championing good producers, practices and people.  The essays in Snail Eggs & Samphire are disparate, making it perfect for dipping in and out of.  Essays entitled Processing for ProfitThe Roots of Hunger, Seeds of Profit  and A Conspiracy of Silence are thought provoking.   For his humorous side, look to Saving for the Future, On Being Cast Down, Pudding Lore and Ova the Odds.  Thankfully much has changed over the 10 years since this book was published, a lot of it thanks to Derek Cooper.  Worryingly, quite a lot hasn't. 

All this passion and the man doesn't even cook!  Whatever else goes into the 'discards' box this week, Snail Eggs and Samphire is staying with me.

Update 19 April 2014:  RIP Derek Cooper who died today.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Paul A Young - chocolate nirvana in Soho

Paul A Young

Passing through Soho a couple of weeks ago I was stopped in my tracks.  There on the corner of Wardour and Broadwick Street was a window display you just don't expect in this uninhibited part of London.   Words like 'beautiful' and 'sophisticated' wouldn't normally enter my head here.  Paul A Young (a chocolatier I know refers to him as PAY, so, for ease, I will too), chocolatier and patissier has brought more than a touch of class to Soho  

Just looking in the window is a treat but stepping inside is like stepping inside a cocoa bean.  All is dark wood and polished glass.  The chocolates are simply, but effectively, displayed on dishes in the middle of the shop rather than behind a counter, and very handsome they look.  But it's the production and development kitchen in the basement, which turns this shop into a chocolate lover's olfactory heaven.  Some concoctions are surprising, like Marmite Truffle or Port and Stilton but there's often an established association behind the thinking.  One of the latest flavours is a domed 'Bakewell Pudding, based on the famous Derbyshire dessert.  I'm not generally a fan of fruit chocolate - too many memories of being left the 'strawberry cream' in the Christmas chocolate box perhaps.  In this case an enrobed creamy ganache and sharp raspberry puree crowned with a marzipan cream and toasted almonds was fabulous.  On the other hand I adore sea-salted caramel, and PAY's 64% Madagascan version is wonderfully silky with just the right hint of burnt sugar.  A truffle flavoured with Kernel Brewery stout and muscovado sugar works brilliantly too.  Only a classic truffle failed to impress, being surprisingly liquid and lacking in flavour.  A Classic Fudge Brownie (an actual brownie this time) was the best I've ever tasted and I'm straining at the leash to get my hands on another. 

There's a large range of in-house chocolate bars, from a 40% Milk to a 100% Dark, as well as flavoured bars such as 70% Dark with Lavender and 72% Venezuelan Dark with Green Peppercorns.  Drinking chocolates and pavés can also be bought.  PAY also keeps the Lincolnshire-based brand Duffy single origin chocolate bars.  This artisan bean to bar producer sources cocoa beans from around the world, carrying out each process in-house to produce small batches.  PAY also sells bars from Mast Brothers, a Brooklyn, New York outfit who are producing real chocolate in the USA (I'm sorry, but I have to say it's been a long time coming).  They are producing their chocolate without additives and, seemingly, as artisan as it could possibly be.  Their philosophy and practices puts me in mind of the natural wine movement which is burgeoning in Europe.  Take a look at their website and love those beards!  Both of these bars I've yet to try so whilst I applaud their values, I can't give an opinion yet. 

These are high-end chocolates with a matching price tag.  In-house 50g Artisan Bars are mostly priced around £3.85, individual chocolates are £2.00 a piece, but less if you buy a box.  There are three kinds of brownie at £3.75 to £4.50, and they are perfect for sharing between two.  At this price and for this quality they are not chocolates to gobble but to savour individually.  Mostly made using Valrhona couvertures, they are clean tasting, mostly beautifully balanced and undeniably interesting, and I'd certainly go out of my way to get them.  Soho just got classy.

Paul A Young
143 Wardour Street
London W1F 8WA
Tel:  +44 (0)20 7437 0011
Mon-Fri 10.00-8pm
Sat Noon-7pm 
(Shops also in N1and EC3)

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Sizzling Sausages at Jacob's Ladder - Food Find

I'm hooked on the sausages Jacob's Ladder are producing now.  Gorgeous meaty pork ones in natural casings are consistently good - minimal shrinkage, no gristle, great flavour and texture.  They also have their own recipe liver sausages and a spicy merguez.  Jacobs Ladder sells meat from a select collective of organic Sussex farms - principally Montague, Hophurst, Gill Wing and the biodynamic Perry Court - and eggs from Ladymead Farm.  To be added to Jane's mailing list for weekly updates on what's available and where to buy (currently Bermondsey and Wimbledon), email  jacobsladderfarms@googlemail.co.uk

To keep up to date on the Bermondsey Trail traders visit http://www.maltbystreet.com/

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Salad of Beetroot & Goats Milk Cheese

Salad of beetroot and
goats milk cheese

The vegetable of the moment on the allotment is beetroot, though closely followed by the courgette which could do with a bit more sun.   I usually grow Burpees Golden beetroot and a pink and white striped Chioggia which always do well right through summer into autumn.  They grow away with little attention, taste great and look good on the plate.  Pronto is a good purple variety which isn't prone to bolting and, when young, also provides a useable leaf for salads. 

Beetroot can be eaten raw, grated into salads, but that's a little too worthy for me.  When cooked it has a wonderfully earthy, yet sweet flavour which, if handled sensitively, should bear no resemblance to those jars of pickled supermarket beetroot.  The texture of beetroot is dense so it needs to either be boiled for 30 minutes to 1 hour (depending on size) or wrapped in foil and baked in a medium oven for at least 1 hour.  Simply wash off any soil, leave 2-3cm of leaf top and the tails on to stop the colour bleeding out before cooking.  They are cooked when the skin comes away with a little finger pressure.  When cooked, skin them, cut into quarters, or more, and dress with your chosen acidic liquid whist still warm.  Sometimes you can buy wood-roasted beetroot to save you time.

Yes, I know, everyone has a recipe for a salad of beetroot and goats milk cheese, so what's so special about this one.  Well, apart from the variety of beetroot and the particular cheese - perfect partners are an easy to buy Crottin, some Ticklemore or an Innes log - it's down to that acid liquor.  Rather than reach for the wine vinegar bottle I've found that the subtle qualities of Verjus provide that essential acid note whilst bringing out the natural sweetness of the beetroot beautifully. 

Verjus (green juice) has been used in cooking since Medieval times and is the result of pressing unripe grapes, or other sour fruits, and fermenting the juice.  Its virtue is that it's milder than vinegar or wine and doesn't fight with whatever wine is being drunk with the dish you're eating.  Aubert & Mascoli, who sell French and Italian wines, have a delicious additive-free Périgord Verjus.  It's good in marinades, for de-glazing or even added to a glass of warm water for a cleansing morning drink.  You can buy it in London from their shop in Dean Street, Soho or most Saturdays at Arch 55 Stanworth Street SE1.  They also deliver anywhere within mainland UK.  Aubert & Mascoli have an impressive pedigree and all their French and Italian wines are either natural, organic, biodynamic or grown sustainably.  Or try your local wine shop for a bottle of Verjus.

Beetroot is, apparently, a "super food".  Whether it is or not, this recipe makes a delicious lunch.

Salad of beetroot and goats milk cheese
(Serves 4)

8 small or 6 medium sized beetroots
2 tablespoons of verjus (or white wine vinegar)
2 Crottins or similar (the goats milk cheeses Ticklemore and Innes work particularly well)
3-4 handfuls of rocket or a mix of leaves (a few baby beet leaves in the mix is good)
2-3 handfuls of of shelled walnuts

1 tablespoon of verjus (or white wine vinegar)
A twist of salt and pepper
1 tablespoon of runny honey
4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

Wash the beetroot and trim the tops to 2-3 cms.  Either wrap in foil and bake in the oven at 200C for about 1 hour, or boil for 30-45 minutes.  Allow to cool until you are just able to handle them and skin the beets.  Cut into quarters (or smaller) and toss in the verjus.  Leave to cool (they keep well in the fridge, covered, for several days).  If refrigerating, bring them back to room temperature.  Pile onto serving plates with the rocket, roughly torn goats milk cheese and the walnuts.  For the dressing, mix the salt, pepper and honey into the verjus, add the olive oil and mix to an emulsion.  Pour a little dressing over each plate of salad and serve.

Aubert & Mascoli
67 Dean Street, London W1D 4QH
and at Arch 55 Stanworth Street, Bermondsey SE1 until 3.00pm every Saturday exept the first in the month

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Barrafina - great tapas in Soho

Barrafina in Soho, London
It's always good to see the owners tucking in with gusto when you visit a restaurant.  As were Sam and Eddie Hart at their tapas bar, Barrafina, recently.  OK they were hosting a journalist but there was no evidence of special treatment other than they seemed to be working their way through the whole menu. That says a lot for the Harts' confidence in the food and their chefs.  I have to say, having eaten at Barrafina a number of times of late, it's not misplaced.

That's not to say they do everything right.  For me, the bread used for the Pan con Tomate is neither correct nor light enough, and you can pay quite a premium for some of the 'Specials'.  Although portion sizes of these dishes are more raciones than tapas.  A dish of Middlewhite Pork Leg with barely wilted baby spinach leaves on a recent visit was £14.80 and, tender Ryeland Lamb Shoulder with sweet fresh peas was £16.80.  They were undeniably delicious but neither cut of meat is expensive to buy.  That said, the ingredients are good, and the chefs cook up a storm right at the mid-section of the bar.  There isn't a bad seat in the house. 

Most of the tapas average around £6.50.  Gorgeous individual Classic Tortillas are cooked to order and served up with just the right amount of ooziness.  Ham croquetas deliver the essential crispy outside to yielding inner and the super-fresh fish is proudly displayed on ice.  Recently, chipirones were particularly tasty and razor clams were beautifully flavoured with a zesty gremolata.  Wines are good value, Finca Manzanos at £4.00 a glass and Cuatro Rayas 2009 at £4.80 for instance, though you can drink more adventurously and expensively, and there are sherries of course.  A 12.5% discretionary service charge is added to the bill.  I've never spent more than £30 a head here.

The Hart brothers were influenced by visits to Spain with their Mallorcan mother and cut their teeth on their restaurat Fino in Fitrovia.  I have to say I wasn't a fan but the influence of their visits to Barcelona's Cal Pep tapas bar is clear at Barrafina and, for me, the Harts have produced something even better than this Barcelona institution.  I think I know what the best tapas bars have in common.  Obviously the quality of the food and drink and good staff are the core.  The regular presence of the owner(s) matters a lot and chefs cooking right in front of the customer adds to the pleasure (on both sides I think).  The ratio of chefs to waiting staff seems to be a factor.  In London, at both Barrafina and my other favourite, Jos  in SE1, the chefs outnumber the waiters, and in both the food is top notch. 

Barrafina has the buzzy atmosphere you expect in the heart of London's Soho.  Staff are welcoming and clearly happy to be there.  You're likely to have to wait in line, but it's worth it.  It's a beautiful bar, well located, and I'm confident you will have as good a time there as I do. 

54 Frith Street
London  W1D 4SL
Tel: 020 7813 8016

Friday, 5 August 2011

Bread pudding the Spanish way at Josẽ

Every country which values bread as a staple food has its own recipe for using up leftover crusts.  This week at José in Bermondsey I ate my first Torrijas, a traditional Spanish sweet bread pudding. It's enjoyed particularly in Madrid during Holy Week, though its origins may be Arabic, and I can't imagine how I managed to miss it.  There is more than one version, some using milk-soaked bread, and some prepared with sugared wine.  Recipes are based around a thick slice of bread soaked in the liquid, dipped in egg, fried in olive oil and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.  At Josẽ, sweetened red wine is used.

On my way to his tapas bar this week I fell into step with José and learned he is aiming for an October opening of his new restaurant, Pizarro on the site of Bermondsey Kitchen.  At 194 Bermondsey Street it is only a stone's throw from Josẽ so he can give his attention to both. There will be an open kitchen, a more extensive menu, and a Cava Bar.  As I'm writing this, José has just popped up on Rick Stein's excellent "Spain" TV series, lending his expertise on the Extramadura region.  Now; back to London.

In England there are a number of dishes which make use of leftover bread, mainly desserts, like the simple Bread Pudding, or for a richer version Bread and Butter Pudding.  Then there's Summer Pudding made with a mixture of fresh berries, or a crisp, buttery Apple Charlotte or Brown Betty.  These are recipes appreciated by the thrifty cook, and are rhapsodised over by anyone who remembers them from childhood.  

The French have similar feelings for their Tendresse aux Pommes and Pain Perdu.  In Egypt they have Om Ali, a mixture of bread (sometimes pancakes or pastry), milk, raisins and almonds.  There is a middle-eastern dish of bread, caramel, honey and rosewater called Eish es Serni, and in India Shahi Tukra, bread is fried in ghee and soaked in a sugar syrup infused with saffron and rosewater and added to cream and almonds.  In Italy they prefer to use leftover bread in a savoury dish such as Panzanella (bread and tomato salad) or in a Pancotto bread and vegetable soup.  In southern Italy dried breadcrumbs are used as a topping for pasta dishes in the same way as parmesan is used in the north. 

The Spanish too have their Sopa de Ajo (garlic and bread soup) and Migas (literally "crumbs"), but they also have Torrijas and right now I'm very taken with it.  Sitting close to the kitchen in Josẽ, I noticed a chef cutting, what turned out to be, Torrijas into 'soldiers', finishing them with a trickle of dark syrup and a sprig of mint.  Noticing my interest, a taster was passed over the counter (it's that sort of place).  It was soft and luscious inside, with a cinnamon perfumed outer crunch.  Adult comfort food just made for sharing and a perfect way to finish tapas with a glass of sherry or a cortado.  I don't usually go out to eat and wish for stale bread, but I will now!

All this writing about bread puddings has inspired me to try some of them out.  Expect another recipe soon.  Right now I have some home-made raspberry ice cream to check out.

104 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3UB
Tel: 020 7403 4902 (no reservations)