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.