Monday, 31 December 2012

Where to eat in London in 2013

Donostia, London W1
Cod Cheeks Pil-Pil

The backlash against 'gourmet fast-food' restaurants in London has started. Having never understood the attraction, I can only see this as a good thing. So don't expect to find any of them in my list of where to eat in 2013.

My pick of London restaurants this year include some old favourites and some great new 2012 openings.  Based on personal experience, here's where I'd like to be eating in 2013.  The last 5 places on the list are newly opened in 2012. All of them are, in my view, serving very good to excellent food and wine at fair prices.

40 Maltby Street Natural wines and Steve & Kit's seasonal, consistently good food.

St John Bread & Wine  for when you need "steadying" in Spitalfields.

Barrafina Arguably London's best Spanish tapas bar, in the heart of Soho.

Quo Vadis In their own words, serving "plain, simple, good fare".  Menus make the most of seasonal British foods.  Soho stalwart, but the excellent Jeremy Lee is now heading up the kitchen.  Review from me coming soon.

Moro Sure-footed cooking of Spanish and Muslim Mediterranean food. Wood-fired oven, good wines and buzzy atmosphere.

Arbutus  Great value lunch in the heart of Soho.

Gauthier Soho Seasonal, great flavours, classic French food with occasional Asian influences from Alexis Gauthier.  Good value lunch.

Bocca di Lupo  Jacob Kenedy's exceptionally good Italian-influenced food in Soho.

Le Gavroche  Michelin ** in Mayfair, Michel Roux Jnr in the kitchen.  Exceptional value 3 course set-lunch menu but book ahead.

The Green Man and French Horn Former pub in the heart of theatre-land serving simple French dishes and great wines, some natural, from the Loire region.  Plat du Jour including a decent glass of wine £10.

The Quality Chop House Seasonal, British and gutsy food.  Excellent re-incarnation of this Victorian Grade II listed London chop house.  Eat in the restaurant or bar.  Good wine list too.

Lardo Good, simple, seasonal food centred round a wood-fired oven in a relaxing setting.  A top place to eat in the ever-improving London Fields, East London.

Donostia The food of San Sebastian in London's West-end.  Authentic, assured cooking, good wines and lovely staff.

Dabbous  The food of Ollie Dabbous was a revelation to me.  It was here that a salad reduced me to silence.  Book well ahead or try for a walk-in.

Happy New Year

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Candied citrus

Candied Cedro

I'm ending this year on a preserving note.  Though everyone has their sleeves rolled up and heads filled with Christmas dinner thoughts right now, don't miss the fantastic flow of continental citrus arriving over the next few weeks. Packed with vitamin C, citrus fruit is just what we need at this time of year.  

With the Mediterranean citrus harvest well under way, it's time to get candying.  Candied citrus peel is so versatile.  It can be eaten simply sprinkled with caster sugar, dipped in chocolate, or added to cakes, breads, tarts, and ice-creams.  Of course, you can buy candied peel in tubs from the supermarket, but if you're enjoying the gorgeous fresh fruits, don't throw away the peel.  If you candy it properly, and keep it in the fridge, it will be good for months.  Above all, it tastes far better than the supermarket version.

Despite their association with the Mediterranean, all members of the orange family originated in China and were brought to Europe by Arab traders.  The present day citrus groves stretching from India across to Spain mark the path of conquering muslim armies in the sixth and seventh centuries.  The first oranges grown were the bitter Citrus aurantium.  Too bitter to eat from the tree, they were cultivated for the scent of their blossom, for perfumes, and for distilling into orange blossom water to flavour food.  Sweet oranges, Citrus sinensis, arrived in the 17th century. 

Bergamot and Cedro both belong to the bitter branch of the citrus family. Bergamot is somewhere between an orange and a lime in shape and size and green/yellow in colour.  Its juice is highly aromatic and quite intoxicating. The oil is used in perfumes and to give Earl Grey tea its characteristic flavour.  The peel candies well too. With the Cedro, it really is all about the peel.  It has, very little juice to speak of but produces, probably, the most luscious candied fruit of all.  But I have a special liking for candied grapefruit peel which turns to deep amber and retains that particular bitter note that appeals to me.

In North African countries, sour pickled citrus fruits are favoured and used for flavouring tagines.  The Italians like to candy fruits whole.  In the hills around Genoa the rare Chinotti grows.  The candying process transforms this rather bitter citrus fruit into the most exquisite Christmas treat rarely found outside Liguria. 

Marmalade has long been a revered preserve in the UK and most families have their recipe.  It's a particularly British taste that only the bitter Seville orange can meet.  The peel, for me, has a certain bitter appeal when candied.   They too will be arriving very soon but it's time to get candying the citrus fruits that are already here.  

Candied orange and lemon peel

Candying whole fruit is something I leave to the experts, but preserving the peel is rather easier.  Some people like to scrape away the white pith under the skin of the fruit before candying.  It's not necessary so long as you boil the skins in fresh water several times to remove the bitterness and you get a much more luscious candied citrus.  Just make sure you candy only one type of citrus peel at a time to ensure you retain its specific flavour.  I like to candy some in quarters and some in thinner slices, but it's up to you.  

Candied Citrus
500g (1lb) citrus peel (pith attached)
600g caster sugar + 60g to sprinkle on the cooked peel
350ml water

Cut the peel into the size, or sizes, you want.  Place in a heavy-based pan, cover with water, bring to the boil and cook for 10 minutes.  Drain the peel and repeat this process twice more.  Dissolve the sugar in the water over a low heat, then bring to the boil.  Add the peel, turn the heat down to a slow simmer and cook until the peel is translucent.  This will take from 30 minutes for thin slices to 2 hours for thick quarters of cedro.  

If you're candying various sizes, use a slotted spoon to remove the citrus peel when translucent and place on greaseproof paper.  I like to leave leave the largest pieces in the syrup for 30 minutes after turning off the heat and before placing them on the paper. Spread them out so the pieces don't touch and leave overnight. Next day sprinkle the peel with the reserved caster sugar.  the keeping quality of candied peel depends on how moist your finished peel is.  You want it soft and yielding yet dried out enough after cooking not be too moist and sticky the next day when you sprinkle it with the 60g of sugar.  They'll keep in a plastic container in the fridge for several weeks or even months depending on moisture levels.  If it's soft and luscious you'll want to use it but if you do want to store some for longer, then allow some pieces to dry out for longer before sugaring and storing.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

'Forager' at Marylebone Farmers Market - Food Find

Marylebone London Farmers Market is my favourite farmers market and one fairly new pitch has been grabbing my attention.  This week a bag of crimson rose-hips shone out amongst the leaves and roots, seeds and fruits set out on the 'Forager' stall.  Jars of sweet-pickled samphire, preserved rose petals, various leaves, stems, broad bean tops, and even spruce cuttings were spread across the stall. Wild plants thrive where there's no human intervention and foraging is a way to reconnect us with our lost food heritage.  'Forager', I learned, is working with some of the most influential chefs of the moment, such as Simon Rogan, Rene Redzepi and Ollie Dabbous.

A pile of 3-cornered garlic (also known as 3-cornered leek) caught my eye. The long, sword-shaped leaf is, I was told, the first (or should that be the last, given that I bought them on 16 December), of the wild garlic to be found in Britain.  It's a totally different plant from Ramsons but is similarly edible.  The leaves are longer and thinner and the flavour is more delicate. Lovely added to a salad, but having a chicken to roast, I tucked them into the pocket between skin and breast meat for a subtle garlicky hit.

London Farmers' Markets

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Ten Christmas Gifts for Food-Lovers

Ulcigrai Family

OK, so this is actually a list of what I would like for Christmas, but it might give you ideas if you have a food-lover in your life.

An Ulcigrai Pannetone £16
From a small family bakery in Trieste.  Available from Leila's, Monmouth Coffee, or 104 Druid Street, London SE1 Saturdays 9-2pm.

A pouch of Sencha tea £7 for 30g
from My Cup of Tea with a spoon infuser £3, or a glass teapot £22.
Buy on-line or from their wholesale arch at 96 Druid Street, London SE1 Saturdays 9-2pm.

Four bars of Marou Vietnamese chocolate at £4 each.
If you're going to Monmouth Coffee for your Christmas supplies, pick up these chocolate bars.  Didn't know Vietnam produced chocolate?  Neither did I, but Marou are bean-to-bar chocolate makers and it tastes great.  Bars range from 72-78% cocoa solids.  Go here for more stockists and info on the renaissance of the Vietnamese cocoa industry.

Hario Skerton hand coffee burr-grinder c£40
from Japan.  Available at many independent coffee shops and on-line

Selection of Cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy c£25
My current choice for Christmas would be Stichelton; Hafod Cheddar; Cardo; Haye-on-Wye

Apron £20-£24
from Thornback & Peel On-line or from their shop at 7 Rugby Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1

Bottle of Sparkling Tricot Bulleversante 2011 (Auvergne) £17 
from Gergovie Wines 40 Maltby Street, Bermondsey, London (check website for opening). Take care opening this lively, natural wine.

A Truffle Slicer around £15
from good cookware shops.  Continental truffles are expensive, so you really need a slicer.  Then, of course, there's English black truffles.  Yes, they are out there.  Learn more at The English Truffle Company

Polpo A Venetian cookbook (of sorts) by Russell Norman £25
This one of my 'six of the best books 2012'.  It's already had its second print run and is a worthy winner of Waterstones Book of the Year 2012.

Porcelain Pestle & Mortar 
If you (or someone you know) have been admiring that pestle and mortar Nigel Slater handles so lovingly on his TV programmes you could take a look at John Julian Design for a similar one.  No price, but expect it to be expensive.   Alternatively, find a potter and commission a truly one-off version.

Happy shopping.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Quality Chop House reinvented

'Chop of the Day' at
The Quality Chop House

Built in 1870 this London 'chophouse' has been dishing up unpretentious food for most of its 140 year life.  The etched glass on one of the windows declares it to be a "Progressive working class caterer".  Back in the late 1880s its Farringdon Road location put it alongside the first 'council housing' to be provided in England.  Customers would have worked in the printing and brewing trades and on the railways, with a few white-collar workers in the mix, all considered 'respectably employed working men'.  These days they're more likely to come from banking houses, lawyers' chambers and Internet start-ups and, well, people like me.

The last notable incarnation of The Quality Chop House was when it was run by ex-Caprice chef Charles Fontaine in the 1990's.  Its star fading, it finally closed its doors in 2010.  The newly revitalised dining room, wine bar and shop has a promising line-up: Josie Stead, formerly GM at Heston's Blumenthal's Dinner, Will Lander ex-St John; and Head Chef Shaun Searley, late of Bistroteque, with, ex-St John Bread & Wine, Jackson Berg as Sous-chef. Having eaten in both the bar and the dining room, my expectations were more than met.

Within the severe restrictions of its Grade II Listing, the new owners have done a great job on the rooms.  Retaining the old light fittings, applying a coat of paint here, a layer of polish and much elbow grease there has turned it into a smart yet cosy destination on a far from glamorous main road into the City. If you don't know the area, The Quality Chop House could appear isolated but it's across the road  from The Eagle and just round the corner from Exmouth Market, home to Moro, Morito and Caravan.

The wine bar and shop feels like that little French bistro you hope to find in Paris, but never quite do -  all marble-topped tables, bentwood chairs and chequered flooring.  Here you can order a 'chop of the day' with a glass of good house wine for £13, or maybe a plate of charcuterie, cheese or a simple hot dish.  The fish pie I tried was exemplary.  The time-poor can pop in for a house-made pie or freshly made sandwich to take back to the office.

Lunch in the Dining Room is a short menu of 3 starters, 3 mains and 3 desserts.  Dinner is a set menu of, mostly, sharing plates, though if there's something you don't like they'll happily come up with an alternative for you. On our visit a small dish of Cornish squid, nicely smoked from the griddle, was simply served doused in good olive oil.  A plate of baked Jerusalem artichokes came too with a fantastic saffron aioli tying the two disparate dishes together.  Individual plates of goats' curd and silky caramelised shallots on toast with rocket leaves followed.  Going with the flow we drank the suggested glass of Agricola Cirelli (£6.50/£25 bottle)), its light nutty flavour paired well with each dish.  Three cuts of lamb followed; a platter of saddle stuffed with morcilla sat pink and luscious on a bed of bitter chicoria; a Lancashire hot-pot of shoulder and leg meat was damn good, spiked with nuggets of sweet root veg.  The suggested glass of Cotes de Nuits Villages Michel Mallard was good, but should be at £9.00 a glass (£39 bottle).  A slice of sticky date loaf with delicious butterscotch sauce and Ivy House Farm cream ended a fine meal.

The set dinner last night was £35 each.  If you have room, peak condition Neals Yard Dairy cheese is fitted into the meal at an extra £3 per cheese.  You could dine very well for £50 a head here if you didn't lose your head over the wine list.  Bottles are priced at what they consider a fair retail price with £10 or £20 added depending on the quality of the wine.  The house wines are very acceptable but oenophiles will surely have a good time.  Filtered tap water is continually topped-up and the table is set with an enviably eclectic selection of plates.

The original narrow pew-like seating, being part of the Listing, is still in place in the dining room but a nifty little padded extension worked perfectly well for me.  The tables are long and thin and can seat a party of six.  If you are two then expect to have another couple seated alongside.  We found it far from intrusive but hopefully the success, which will surely come, will not make them squeeze too many more customers in.  Back in the 1880s, however, I doubt if customer comfort would have been considered quite as carefully as ours was at this incarnation of The Quality Chop House.

The Quality Chop House
92-94 Farringdon Road
London EC1R 3EA
Tel: 020 7278 1452

Dining Room open Mon-Sat 12-3pm & 6-11pm
Wine bar & Shop Mon-Sat 11am-midnight
(There's also a beautiful private room for up to 10 upstairs)

Friday, 7 December 2012

Maltby Street & Spa Terminus Update

I know many of you are interested in news from Maltby Street and Spa Terminus so here's a quick update.  In April I posted about the gradual migration of the original Observer Food Award winning Maltby Street traders.  The end of the year seems a good time to update you on how Spa Terminus is looking now.  To save repeating myself, you can find my April piece at Maltby Street & Spa Terminus - the doors open  Since then, Spa Terminus has welcomed a few more wholesale businesses opening for retail every Saturday:

Monmouth Coffee

England Preserves

La Grotta Ices


Spa Terminus now has a website  with a map and a listing of all the businesses.  A few currently don't open their doors for retailing on Saturdays, and I have yet to try them.  The ones I mention here and in my April piece do open and I can recommend them.  The good thing is the 'Spa Terminus' website covers the new site and includes those few traders who are remaining in their original arches for the time being.  Most are on Druid Street (north side of the railway line) with only Gergovie Wines/40 Maltby Street bar remaining on Maltby Street (south side).

Other traders have moved into the area, particularly Rope Walk, to take the place of the originals.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Food books 2012 - Six of the best

It's 5 December so time for me to acknowledge we are racing towards the year's end.  Here is my pick of the food books I've been reading in 2012.  This year I have six recommendations for you.  I don't feel constrained to only recommend books published in the last 12 months, but five of them were.  The sixth is from 2007 but rest assured you will be able to buy it in paperback as another print run is about to hit the bookshops.  These six books are all very different and cover a lot of ground.  I'm sure you will find something here you like.

Polpo - a Venetian Cookbook (of sorts)
by Russell Norman
This book was born out of a love affair.  Anyone who has visited Venice has special memories and for Russell Norman a one week stay in his youth kindled a love for the city, the food and the drink which has never dimmed.  Several years and many more visits and a plan began to form.  Inspiration did not come from the restaurants of Venice, which Norman points out in the tourists areas are".. about as authentic as the plastic golden gondolas for sale on the Ruga dei Orsi .." but the tiny Bàcari (wine bars) of the authentic Venice.  Here locals meet to chat, eat chichèti (Venetian tit-bits) and down a Prosecco or Spritz, or two......  For the full review, go to my Favourite Books page.

Awarded Waterstones Book of the Year 2012

Book courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi

Shakshuka cooked from 'Jerusalem'
It was the bold flavours of Levantine cuisine that brought together Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi when they found themselves working together in London.  Living only 2km apart but never meeting, they separately left Jewish West and Palestinian East Jerusalem for London, via Tel Aviv, in the 1990's. With Italian and German parentage Ottolenghi was used to eating both European food and the Arab food familiar to Tamimi when both were growing up.  This mix of cuisines has informed the cooking at their four cafe/shops and new restaurant, NOPI, in London.  Their signature is bright, fresh, spicy flavours; sometimes surprising and sometimes challenging...... For the full review, go to my Favourite Books page.

Book courtesy of Ebury Press

The Art of Cooking with Vegetables
by Alain Passard
Some time in the 1990's I was lucky enough to eat at L'Arpege in Paris.  Dish after sublime dish passed from kitchen to table.  I remember every plateful being simple but wonderful with, mercifully, none of the primping and tweaking one might have expected...... For the full review, go to my Favourite Books page.

Published by Frances Lincoln Limited

Salt Sugar Smoke
by Diane Henry
I've dabbled a little in preserving food over the years but until I got my hands on an allotment it was a spasmodic activity.  If you have a kitchen garden or allotment you'll know it's sometimes necessary to either give produce away or deal with a glut.  Diana Henry's latest book Salt Sugar Smoke is just what I need, but you don't have to grow your own food to find this book invaluable. It's perfect too for anyone who has just a small amount of food to preserve. Diana teaches the "know-how" of preserving nature's abundance, however small an amount you may have.  No backyard smokery, professional brining vat or other expensive equipment is required.  A kindly guiding hand takes you gently through enticing recipes that really work.  This is the perfect book for anyone who wants to learn about all aspects of preserving...... For the full review, go to my Favourite Books page.

Book Courtesy of Octopus Publishing Group

Kitchen Diaries II
by Nigel Slater
I fell completely in love with Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries when it was published in 2005.  Volume II continues the theme of cooking day by day but there is much more emphasis here on using up the food you have and wasting nothing.  A book which reflects our austerity times, you might say.  It's the most recently published of my recommendations.  So recent that I'm still working my way through it since it arrived as a birthday present.  I've yet to publish a proper review (coming soon) but I've seen enough to know it's another one to treasure.  Given the inventiveness of Nigel Slater, there's no reason why this series of books shouldn't run and run.  It's based on the way Nigel Slater lives, works and eats.  It's an enviable job, and someone's got to do it!  You can read my review of 'The Kitchen Diaries' on my Favourite Books page.

Published by Fourth Estate

Taste - The story of Britain through its Cooking
by Kate Colquhoun
First published in 2007, Kate Colquhoun's book Taste is as much a book of social history as cooking.  Her stated aim was to write the story of the people behind the food.  Given that the story starts in pre-history and Britain's printed cookbook tradition didn't begin to flourish until the 16th century, it's an extensively researched undertaking.  Colquhoun points out that "history is wrtitten by those who can write.  Social historians have to dig deeper".  She takes us from the finds discovered in a 3200 BC Orkney kitchen midden through the "conspicuous culinary consumption" of the Romans, the Elizabethan great halls and the effects of the Industrial Revolution.  She puts forward the view that the huge technological advances of the Victorian era came at a price.  That of divorcing households from the narrative of where our food comes from.  Only now, she believes, are we facing up to the true cost of our food.  We spend less on food now than at any point in history and we throw away 1/3 of it.  This book is packed with fascinating facts but it's also a fantastic read.  It's difficult to turn a page without feeling you need to mark a passage or scribble some little nugget of information down.  Full review coming just as soon as I can put this book down.

Published by Bloomsbury Cooks

Happy reading.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Claudia Roden on the roots of Spanish Food

A few days ago I attended a Birkbeck Food Group event with one of my food heroes, Claudia Roden.  It took Claudia 5 years to research her most recent book The Food of SpainSixty minutes was never going to be enough for this whistle-stop tour of the country in its cuisine.

Each visit Claudia made to Spain unearthed more food memories than she could have hoped for.  Each contact came up with yet another person to meet.  She would talk food favourites, festivals and folk history in kitchens as "people open up in the kitchen, not in the living room".  Most, be they workers or nobility, spoke of peasant cuisine being central to their food memories.  

Claudia's thesis is that Spain's history of conquering armies meant a population on the move and tastes were, by necessity, unsophisticated. The aristocrats despised vegetables and ate meats, mostly game, though rabbits were left to the lower orders.  In Bourbon and Habsburg times the Spanish nobility ate French cuisine.  They followed the lead of King Philip V who employed cooks trained in the French court at Versailles.  The current haute cuisine in Spain, she was assured, was a cuisine of "today", though chefs claim to look to the roots of Spanish food for inspiration.

A quote from the Catalan writer Josep Pia "A country's cuisine is its landscape in a cooking pot" was apt.  The diversity of the landscape of Spain has led to three styles of cooking: the sea; the plain; and, the mountains.  Claudia pointed out that, unlike Italy, dishes are not contained within regional borders.

The food of the wet, mountainous north was influenced by early French pilgrims walking the pathways of St. James, and by the maize, potatoes, beans and peppers brought back from South America by returning priests. The Visigoths introduced cider apples and pigs leading to dishes such as the Asturian roast pork with apples and cider.  The ebb and flow of religious intolerance can be seen in the foods of Jews who arrived in northern Spain to escape the rule of the Berbers in the 12-13th centuries.  To Claudia's mind, the famous Tarta di Santiago is a good example.  In this sweet dish of almonds, eggs, sugar, butter and citrus she can see the Jewish Passover cake.

The hot, interior Plain was perfect for ranching and pastoral farming, feeding the rich on roast meats and the poor on "spoon" dishes.  After 1492, the Moriscos (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity) remained in the region until the 17th century leaving a legacy of Moorish dishes which we learnt exceeded that of Andalucia.  The fried breadcrumb dish 'migas', now widespread in Spain, came about when the Moors were banned from eating couscous.

The coast and Balearic Islands shared the mild climate and cuisine of other Mediterranean countries.  In Cordoba, on the the Route de Caliphate, Claudia had enjoyed aubergine soaked in milk, floured, fried and drizzled with honey.  Having eaten a very similar dish in Morocco, it was difficult to argue its origins did not lie in Moorish rule.  Later, Catalans re-populated these Arab-taken areas and brought their cuisine to the mix.

In all regions the clergy exerted a powerful influence over food.  The Catholic decree that fish be eaten on Fridays resulted in salt cod being named as the preferred fish of many Spanish people today, even those living near the sea.  Pork was a tool of the inquisition.  This can be seen in some areas of the country where the sheer number of dishes containing a little pork is a clear sign that the Inquisition was active.  On Saturdays the clergy would check for smoke from the chimneys of homes to prove both Muslims and Jews were compliant in their conversions.

As in many European countries, the monasteries were famous for the quality of their cooking and in the convents pastries were baked for benefactors.  Attempting to extract recipes, Claudia was frustrated to find the convent visited was that of a ‘closed order’, with only Sister Immaculata having dispensation to speak.  This significant problem was later resolved by an unintended invitation to the Sisters to become Friends on Facebook where they happily 'conversed'.

Talk based on The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden
Pubished by Michael Joseph
A version of this piece can be found on the Birkbeck University of London Events Blog

Here is the recipe for Claudia Roden's version of that Tarta de Santiago almond cake.  
Serves 10

250g blanched almonds 
6 eggs, separated
250g caster sugar 
Grated zes of 1 orange
Grated zest of 1 lemon
4 drops almond extract
butter to grease the cake tin
flour to dust the cake tin 
icing sugar to dust the cake

Grease a spring-form cake tin, around 28cm in diameter (preferably non-stick) with butter and dust with flour.  Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4.

Grind the almonds finely in a food processor.  Beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a pale cream then best in the orange and lemon zest and almond extract.  Add the ground almonds and mix very well.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff and fold gently into the egg yolk and almond mixture.  Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, smoothing the top.  Bake in the oven for 40 minutes or until it feels firm.

Cool then turn out.  Dust the top with icing sugar - if you like, cut the shape of a Santiago cross out of the paper and place it in the middle of the cake first, then carefully remove the paper shape.

This is a pastry-less version of Tarta de Santiago.  For my favourite pastry-line version, and more information on the cake, look here

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The importance of shopping local

The East End Trades Guild
Inaugural Meeting

I love my life in London, for so many reasons, but every now and then stories from the lives of others stops me in my tracks.  So it was on Monday evening when I attended an event which reinforced my commitment to shopping independent and local.

I was proud to bear witness to the inaugural meeting of the East End Trades Guild (EETG).  The very first guilds were characterised by their binding oaths sworn among artisans to support one another in adversity and back one another in feuds or in business ventures.  On Monday some 200 independent traders from the East End and the City formalised their own Guild. The guilds of the 1400s tended to be specific to a craft and here EETG differs in being an organisation made up of a disparate group of traders - cafe owners, book sellers, shoe repairers, newsagents, butchers, bakers, fishmongers, - the businesses that make up a typical High Street.  Except in this case there is a paper bag trader and a Ukulele seller, which may not be quite your average mix.

So, why had they decided to come together.  The EETG banner - designed by a trade member and printed by another member - makes their statement: "We are the beating heart of the East End" and their motif makes clear its intent "Together we are stronger".  The members of this Guild are the people who serve their communities, often they are the glue that holds them together, and they are under attack.  Of course they are battling the invidious creep of the supermarkets but rent rises and bureaucracy are threatening their survival too.

The event at Christ Church Spitalfields was a time for celebration. Photographs, a short film, and music lent a slightly euphoric air to the proceedings.  The speeches were heartfelt; Dairyman Henry Jones whose family had served Londoners for 135 years; Nevio Pellicci of E Pellicci's cafe whose Italian ancestors set up the cafe in 1900; Shanaz Khan of restaurant Chaat in Bethnal Green who was a passionate and eloquent voice of the members; and then there was Paul Gardner  of Gardners' Market Sundriesmen fourth generation supplier of essential paper bags to local businesses.  His fight against a rent rise which would have put him out of business was the seed, planted by organiser Krissie Nicolson, for the formation of the EETG.  

Then, as so often happens at gatherings, we all milled together to eat and drink.  A Brick Lane beigel, some curried potatoes, a hunk of cheddar cheese with bread, fruit, cakes and ale, all supplied by members of the Guild.  Then the serious talk began.  The revitalisation of East London comes at a price in the form of rent rises for the existing traders and early pioneers.  Clearly this is top of the agenda for most members, but they are also battling bureaucracy.  I spoke to a fishmonger about the parking charges he now faces when bringing his fish from Billingsgate;  the parking nightmare for his customers as they fight for the handful of spaces; the charge he has to pay for Council rubbish bags and the fine he'd had to pay because the last sack of rubbish wouldn't fit in the over-full Council bin.  Then there were his Kafkaesque discussions with the Council after a nearby bus stop was extended to accommodate the soon to be decommissioned 'bendy-buses', and the consequent parking fines he'd incurred for unloading outside his shop.

So, when you're chasing after the next shiny new thing, and I'm as likely to do that as anyone, remember your local, independent  traders.  They are the beating heart of your city.

The EETG seeks "to keep the streets of the east end vibrant and diverse, and to demonstrate the cultural, social and economic significance of independents in the East End."  07910 966738

Spitalfields Life  - The Founding of the East End Trades Guild

Friday, 16 November 2012

Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding

OK, we've passed mid-November which means even I have to start thinking about Christmas now. Well, at least what food I'm going to serve.  We're talking dried fruit without which, for most of us, Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas.

'Stir-up Sunday' falls on 25th November this year.  The last Sunday before Advent is the date when families are meant to get together to take turns in stirring the Christmas cake, pudding or mincemeat which will be eaten over the Christmas period.  Whether you indulge in 'Stir-up Sunday' or not, now is the time to decide which of them you're going to make - and for me it is a choice as you really can have too much of a good thing - because you need to get ahead for a good result.

This year I'm making pudding.  Actually, it was my preferred choice last year too, hence the photograph above.  I was really pleased with the result but by the time it was sampled over Christmas it was too late to, so to speak, share it.

Just a brief bit of history for you if you don't want to look it up - and why would you when you've a pressing engagement with a mixing bowl.  Christmas Pudding is sometimes referred to as Plum Pudding or Plum Duff. It probably evolved from Pottage, a loose textured dish eaten in Roman Britain and containing meat, vegetables, dried fruits, sugar and spices.  By the 15th century it had become a firmer pudding and was a way of keeping meat which was slaughtered in the autumn, the dried fruit acting as a preserving agent. By the 19th century the dessert Christmas pudding as we now know it had arrived, with only shredded suet tying the recipe to its meaty origins. Relatively recently I was presented with a jar of sweet mincemeat by an Alaskan friend.  It contained reindeer meat, so the practice of preserving meat with dried fruits is still alive and well in some communities.

Dried fruit

Commercial Christmas Puddings are often a bit stodgy.  If that kind of pudding was your first experience I can understand you wouldn't want to repeat it.  It really doesn't have to be like that.  A good pudding should be full of a wide mixture of dried fruit which are in sympathy with each other.  It should be a little on the tart side, citrusy rather than overly sweet, held together by as little flour as possible, and boozy if your partial.  Get this right and it will emerge juicy and surprisingly vibrant when steamed prior to serving.

Many recipes have been passed down through families and I wouldn't want to mess with them.  I didn't inherit a Christmas Pudding recipe so I've begged, borrowed, stolen and tweaked mine over the years and I'm finally satisfied with it.  I'm not saying it's better than anyone else's version but, if you don't have a recipe you're happy with, you should give this one a go.  It's worth buying good quality dried fruit - currants in particular, as they can be gritty.  I don't particularly like glacé cherries but I love dried sour cherries so I sometimes pop a few in to this recipe.  If you haven't made Christmas Pudding before, don't be put off by the long list of ingredients.  It's a simple process of mixing everything together, popping it in a bowl and steaming it.

As soon as I start weighing out the ingredients, those familiar smells of Christmas start to hit me and turn this most 'bah-humbug' Christmas-denier into an enthusiastic Cratchet.  Well almost, let's not get too carried away with Christmas spirit here.

Christmas Pudding
(Makes 1 x 1.5 litre pudding - enough for 8 people)

175g sultanas
125g raisins
50g currants
75g dried figs, chopped roughly
50g dried apricots, chopped roughly
50g candied peel
50g dried prunes, chopped roughly (or 25g chopped dried prunes + 25g chopped dried sour cherries
80ml brandy or rum

3 eggs, briefly beaten
175 Muscovado sugar
125g shredded suet (vegetable, rather than animal, if you prefer)
125g fresh breadcrumbs
100g self-raising flour
2-3 tsp mixed spice
1 cored and grated quince or cooking apple (no need to peel)
1 orange, zest and juice

Put the first 7 ingredients in a bowl.  Pour in the brandy, stir, and leave to steep overnight.  The next day, give it another stir. 

In a large bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients.  Add the soaked dried fruit and mix well.

Butter a 1.5 litre pudding basin.  Pour in the mixture, flattening the top.  If your basin doesn't have a lid (plastic ones often do, in which case pop the lid on) take a square of greaseproof paper and fold a pleat into it.  Place on top of the basin and tie around with string to secure.  Secure a piece of kitchen foil, with a pleat folded in to it, on top of the greaseproof paper to keep the moisture out.  Steam your pudding over simmering water for about 4 hours.  Allow to cool completely, then remove the foil and greaseproof paper caps and cover with a fresh piece of greaseproof.  Store in a cool dark place until needed, then steam again for about 3 hours before eating.  

If you want to reduce the quantities, a 1 litre size will take about 3 hours plus 2 hours on the day.  I think it's best served with double cream, but some will prefer rum sauce or brandy butter.  Leftover pudding is lovely sliced and fried briefly in a little butter.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Green Man and French Horn

Tarte Vigneron at
The Green Man and French Horn

I normally write about a place I like after a couple of visits but in the case of The Green Man and French Horn I've been a little selfish.  Having been quietly enjoying this place for several weeks I really must share my view of it.  First thing to know is it comes out of the same stable as Terroirs, Brawn and Soif so expect rustic French food and interesting natural wines.  The owners - Ed Wilson and Oli Barker - have a proven formula but if you're expecting the full roll-call of French wines, you need to be aware that this particular stablemate is focused on the Loire Valley.  For me, this doesn't limit my enjoyment, particularly as they keep some delicious organic and biodynamic examples of the region.  An unfiltered crisp appley Sauvignon Primeur the colour of blushed apricots has captured my heart, along with a spicy, red fruit Le Tel Quel Pinot Noir, both £5.75 a glass.

The food too is focused on the Loire area of France, but given how far this extends, again it's far from limiting.  Portions are generous, even the Plat du Jour which includes a glass of wine for £10 is a hearty plateful.  Vendee Ham with mogette beans is typical and delivers a creamy bowl of white beans topped with slices of salty ham.  The full menu offers simply prepared dishes such as exemplary rillette & cornichons, tranches of terrine, rillons, endive and mustard, crisply fried whitebait or a comforting dish of girolles and artichoke topped with a warm egg yolk.  Meats follow the seasons so, at the moment, you can expect maybe partridge with celeriac, ceps and pickled walnuts or rabbit cooked in cider.  Seasonal fish dishes might include a bowl of mussels with fennel and dill, grilled sardines with garlic and parsley or even the Loire freshwater fish, Zander, served with a traditional beurre blanc.  The pudding section is equally strong, from an irresistible boozy apple Tarte Vigneron to white wine poached pear with salted butter caramel and sable biscuit.  Expect to pay around £80 for two including wine and service.

The Green Man & French Horn was, you will not be surprised to learn, formerly a pub.  I've lost count of the number of people who have told me they have fond memories of it.  Smack bang in the heart of theatreland, the pub has gone but you'll get good wine and honest French food very well made from top quality ingredients.  I honestly can't think where this sort of thing is done better in London.  The staff are very good, particularly Laura behind the bar with her knowledge of wines, and the cosy pub atmosphere has been retained.  For me it's a very welcome find and not only because it's in a street of otherwise nondescript food.

The Green Man and French Horn
54 St Martin's Lane
London WC2N 4EA
Tel: 020 7836 2645

MARCH 2015 UPDATE: Sadly, now closed -  go around the corner to Terroirs at 5 William IV Street WC2N 4DW

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Pumpkin with beetroot? Alain Passard gets it right

Chioggia and Burpees Golden Beetroots

Having an allotment or kitchen garden means there is almost always a glut of some fruit or vegetable to  challenge the imagination.  In February-March we are pulling leeks and parsnips from the frozen ground.  Come April we're planting seeds for the coming season but also feasting on purple sprouting broccoli.  Early summer sees us tentatively probing the autumn-planted garlic for the, hopefully, fat swollen bulbs and starting to pick the soft fruits.  By mid-summer we are scurrying to the plot every other day to deal with an embarrassment of riches from the raspberry canes.

Late summer into autumn is all about scarlet, yellow and white stemmed Ruby chard, earthy, sweet beetroot, squash and pumpkin.  Although growing pumpkins and squash has been a dispiriting affair for most of us this year, beetroot hasn't suffered much from the strange weather conditions in the UK. Right now, I can use as many good recipes for beetroot as I can get - there are only so many beetroot salads we can take.

A present of Alain Passard's book, The Art of Cooking with Vegetables, arrived at just the right time.  Though approached with trepidation (well, this is a 3 Michelin starred chef we're talking about here), the recipes are proving to be very simple, interesting and delicious.

Pumpkin & Beetroot Bake

Being so over-burdened with beetroot, I went straight to the page 'A tale of pumpkin and beetroot'. It's a perfect recipe for this time of year so, although I was doubtful about the combination, I tried it out.  Even Passard had his reservations when he considered the pairing - "... it is an encounter I did not really believe could work ..."  The firm, juicy earthiness of the red beetroot goes with the soft, sweet pumpkin wonderfully well.  A sharp burst of lime and mint cuts through the rich butter and cheese elements of the dish.  Visually it's a stunner too.  The recipe below is slightly adapted from the original, but when the original is so good you really don't want to mess with it too much. Passard does not instruct you to peel the pumpkin.  If you use butternut squash, peeling isn't necessary (though personally I prefer to), but with a hard-skinned pumpkin you will need to peel it.

A Dish of Pumpkin & Beetroot
(Generously serves 4 as a starter, 2 as a main course)
300g (11oz)  peeled butternut squash, or favourite pumpkin, cut into large crescent shaped wedges.
Uncooked red beetroot weighing at least 700g (1lb 10oz)
100g (4oz) lightly salted butter, preferably clarified
Juice of 1 lime
A small handful of mint leaves
200g (7 oz) Emmental cheese cut into thin slices
Salt & pepper

Cook the beetroots in lightly salted simmering water, in a covered pan, for up to an hour depending on size.  Leave to cool in the cooking water for 30 minutes, then peel and cut it into large dice.
Set a large pan over low heat (if it's one that can take all the ingredients and go under the grill at the end, so much the better), melt the butter and add the pumpkin wedges.  Sweat the pumpkin gently, partially covered, for 40 minutes or until tender and lightly coloured, turning it occasionally.  Remove from the heat.
If you need to change to a pan which can go under the grill, now is the time.  Arrange the crescents of pumpkin so that they are lying as flat as possible and distribute the diced beetroot in between, making a fairly level layer.  Add the lime juice and mint leaves and top with the slices of Emmental.
Place the pan under a hot grill for several minutes until the cheese melts.  Season with salt and pepper.  Serve immediately.
Salad leaves and crusty bread turn this into a substantial main course dish.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Art of Cooking with Vegetables by Alain Passard

The Art of  Cooking with Vegetables
Alain Passard

Some time in the 1990's I was lucky enough to eat at L'Arpege in Paris.  Dish after sublime dish passed from kitchen to table.  I remember every plateful being simple but wonderful with, mercifully, none of the primping and tweaking one might have expected.  But it was the end of the meal which I remember best.  Yes, Passard did make an appearance, in a self-effacing way but what has stayed with me was the way a basket containing a whole tray of exquisite baby madeleines, hot from the oven, was placed before us.  It was a nice touch which left us feeling like we had dined with friends rather than at a Michelin starred restaurant, albeit we had paid for the privilege.

In 2000 Alain Passard, shockingly, removed red meat from his restaurant menu.  A brave move from a man who had worked hard to gain no less than 3 Michelin stars.  I haven't eaten at L'Arpege since the change in focus, but it does still have those 3 stars.  All the vegetables used in the restaurant are grown on Passard's biodynamic farm south-west of Paris.  As I grow biodynamically myself, I probably appreciate his enthusiasm more than most. His passion to unite a love of cooking with that of art took him on a "quest for gastronomic and visual harmony" and The Art of Cooking with Vegetables, is published for the 25th anniversary of L'Arpege.

Vegetarians will love this book for its unusual and interesting pairings.  It's so different, with not a grain of quinoa in sight, that I can see it appealing to the most committed meat eater too.  It takes vegetables seriously and, in 48 seasonal recipes, places them centre stage.  Despite the title, there are a few recipes for fruit too.  Personally, I love the colourful collage representations alongside the recipes but if you prefer to see clearly what you're aiming for you may not share my enthusiasm.  Having been given this book as a present, I opened it a little nervously thinking my cooking couldn't possibly live up to the recipes within.  In fact the recipes are very simple and in the case of the two I've tried so far, you really can't go wrong.  Both were visually impressive and delivered on taste, just as promised, so I'm keen to work my way through the book season by season.   Alain Passard would like his readers to be "a cook and an artist" and with recipes like these, how can we fail.

Published by Frances Lincoln Limited 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Raspberry & Rose Sponge Cake

Slice of Raspberry & Rose
Sponge Cake

I have a thing about roses.  The heady scent of old roses in a garden on a warm summer evening is intoxicating but the sight of them decaying softly through autumn is sadness personified.  Far better to sacrifice a few summer blooms and capture their essence in a jam, jelly, syrup or water to hold on to summer.  Being so highly aromatic, a little goes a long way.

Diana Henry has a recipe for Rose petal jelly in her preserving book Salt Sugar Smoke which urges you to "find roses whose fragrance makes you swoon".  For a jam, I could refer you to Sir Kenelm Digby's (or Digbie) 17th century recipe for a 'Conserve of Red Roses'.  Son of Gunpowder Plotter, Sir Everard, was an 'English courtier, philosopher and diplomat' but this hardly does justice to describing his colourful career.  Amongst his wide-ranging interests was cookery and a book 'The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened' was published by his family in 1669, after his death.  As with most recipes of this time, amounts are somewhat imprecise but I do love the instruction to boil until the petals "be very tender and look pale like linen".  I point you instead to this magical post on the beautiful blog of Emiko Davies where you'll find a much simpler recipe: Rose Petal Jam from a Venetian Monastery.

If you don't have a garden, or can't bear to pluck your roses, there are a few good products available to buy.  In London La Fromagerie stocks a fabulous Romanengo fu Stefano Rose Petal Jam.  If it's a Rose petal syrup you want, Fortnum and Mason keep a luscious version from Forage Fine Foods.  In the range there is a Sweet Rose Dukkah blend of rose petals, spices, nuts and vanilla which is wonderful too.

Raspberry & Rose
Sponge Cake
On a grey, rainy London day, November is trying to edge out October before it has drawn breath. A perfect day to bake a cake, but it's too early to resort to autumnal gingerbread or parkin.  I want to hold on to summer just a little longer.  A bottle of Forage Fine Foods Rose Petal Syrup glows alongside a couple of jars of loose-set Raspberry & Rose conserve, made with what may be the last of my allotment raspberries.  A simple sponge is called for to allow the rose perfume to shine through.

This sponge cake uses the Genoise method to obtain the lightness I want. There being no raising agent added, the mixture relies on incorporating air for lift.  I always thought it was necessary to beat the eggs and sugar over simmering water until I tried Sally Clarke's method.  She makes Genoise sponges every day for here brilliant shop in Kensington Church Street ringing the changes through the seasons.  So long as you use an electric whisk, and mix for 5-10 minutes, you can achieve the volume without the risk of curdling the eggs over water.  For the filling, raspberry or strawberry jam will work equally well, I think, but a thin layer is enough.  If your jam is not flavoured with rose, add a little extra syrup to the cream so that your jam doesn't over-power the rose.

Raspberry & rose sponge cake
(makes a 24cm cake - halve the quantities for 18cm)

25g melted butter, plus a little extra to butter the tin
100g soft, plain flour plus a little extra for the tin
4 eggs
100g caster sugar
About 2-3 tbsp raspberry & rose jam (or raspberry or strawberry jam)
300ml double cream
1 tbsp rose petal syrup
1 heaped tsp icing sugar
1 tsp Sweet Rose Dukkah (optional)

Preheat the oven to 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4.  Brush the cake tin with a little melted butter, line the bottom with baking parchment, brush again with butter and dust the inside of the tin with flour. Beat the eggs with the sugar with an electric mixer for between 5-10 minutes until it's the thickness of shaving foam and the whisk leaves a distinct trail.  Sieve the flour and fold in gently.  Gently mix in the cooled melted butter.  Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and immediately bake it in the oven for 15-20 minutes until golden. Remove, cool for a few minutes, then turn onto a cooling rack and remove the baking parchment.

When the cake has cooled completely, slice horizontally with a serrated bread knife.  Spread the jam thinly on the cut sides of both halves of sponge.  Whip the cream to soft peaks and fold in the rose syrup.  Spread the cream on the bottom half of the sponge. Carefully place the top half, jam side down, on the bottom layer, pressing down gently.  Dust with the sifted icing sugar. Scatter with the Sweet Rose Dukkah (if using).

La Fromagerie
Fortnum & Mason
Forage Fine Foods