Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Ossi dei Morti - Bones of the dead

Ossi dei Morti
- Bones of the dead

On 31st October much of the Christian Western world marks All Hallows' Eve or Hallowe-en, or All Saints' Eve, a festival with arguably pagan or Christian origins.  In Italy, most will wait for All Saints' (or Souls) Day itself and celebrate Tutti Morti, or  Day of the Dead on 2 November.  This is the day for remembering your departed ancestors.

There is no one dish associated with the celebration in Italy.  Each region has its own favourites, but biscuits often play a part.  Ossi dei Morti translates as 'bones of the dead' and they're one of the many types baked at this time.  I've been making these little morsels for years since coming across the recipe in Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Remolif Shere.  They're meant to resemble bleached, brittle, bones and their macabre name is part of the appeal.

Dead man's bones

I've scaled down the original recipe and the quantities I've used here will produce around 40 biscuits.  I've also used a tiny drop of Amaretto liquor instead of almond essence.  Hand-chopping the almonds is worth the effort for that extra crunch, but you can chop them briefly in a processor to save time.

Ossi dei Morti (adapted from Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Remolif Shere)
(makes around 40)

70g almonds (skin on)
225g caster sugar
½ level teaspoon baking powder
Small pinch of salt
1 scant teaspoon lemon juice
1 large egg
A few drops of Amaretto liquor or almond essence
100g plain soft flour

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/160C fan oven/Gas 4.  Place the unskinned almonds on a baking tray and roast lightly for 5 minutes before chopping roughly.
Turn the oven down to 150C/130C fan oven/Gas 2.  Line 2-3 baking trays with parchment.
Mix the sugar, baking powder, salt and lemon juice.  Add the eggs and Amaretto or almond essence and beat well until the mixture takes on a spongy look.  Mix in the flour and chopped almonds.
Turn out on a lightly floured surface and roll the dough with your hands into ropes about 1 cm thick.  Cut into 3-4cm lengths.  Place on the baking trays 6cm apart and bake for 15-20 minutes until very lightly coloured.  
They'll keep for a week in an airtight container.

Happy haunting!

Monday, 28 October 2013

Mons Cheesemongers - Rating the Reblochon

Reblochon tasting
at Mons Cheesemongers

I've got to say from the outset that I'm a committed British cheese eater.  I've not only watched the re-birth of our artisan cheese industry with interest but actively participated in its revival to the point where I'm pretty sure I've sampled each and every type of British cheese at some point.  Yes, I am a cheese nerd.

I came late to Swiss cheeses - Gruyere was something you added to an omelette if you wanted to get fancy in our house, not a cheese to savour in its own right.  I now know better and, thanks to Rachael Sills of Käseswissthat there is very much more to Swiss cheese than Gruyere.

When it comes to French cheeses though, I head to Mons Cheesemongers and  I'm not alone.  If you eat out anywhere in the the capital, and beyond, where they source with care, some of their cheeses almost certainly come from Mons.  Founded in France by Hubert Mons, the business is a family affair now involving the patriarch's children and grandchildren.  Cheeses are matured at their cellars at St Haon le Chatel in the Rhône-Alpes.  The British arm of the business was formed in 2006 and sells French and Swiss cheeses directly to shops and restaurants around the UK and also has a stall at Borough Market.  On Saturdays, the shutters at their Bermondsey base are flung open to reveal a spread which, according to the season, may include creamy Perail, ash-dusted Fromage Cathare, vine-wrapped Mistralou or erupting Vacherin Mont d'Or.

An invitation to learn about and select the best Reblochon cheese was too good for any self-respecting cheese nerd to turn down.  The prospect of spending 2-3 hours on a Friday night in a south London railway arch was, I was sure, not going to appeal to many people.  How wrong could I be.  At least 50 cheese- makers, mongers, buyers and enthusiasts are grouped over cheese slates, each bearing 6 quarters of Haute-Savoie potential heaven.  Full cream, unpasteurised cows milk and a little alchemy produces a 10-12cm discus of semi-soft cheese with a fat content of 45%.  Don't be afraid - saturated fat is not the enemy.  As in all things, moderation is the key although tonight is an exception.  It's not often you get the chance to compare and contrast on this scale.  Add to that a welcoming glass of white poured from a magnum by Guillaume Aubert.  Then, with the cheeses a couple of biodynamic wines courtesy of Cipriano Barsanti from 60 year old Tuscan vineyard Macea, stocked in the UK by Aubert and Mascoli.  This biodynamic vineyard practices minimal intervention and produces fewer than 1,000 bottles of each of its two outstanding wines in which they are "always looking for personality and a sense of place".  I like both the sentiment and the wines.

Negotiant and maturer, Jean-Pierre Missilier, ably translated by Jon Thrupp and Jane Hastings of Mons UK, gave us a run-through of the 200 year history of Reblochon.  If, like me, you enjoy the way French cheese names roll deliciously off the tongue without giving too much thought to how they got their name, this will be news to you too.  Reblochon derives from the verb "reblocher", meaning to "squeeze a cow's udder again" and refers to the C13th practice of not fully milking the cow until after the landlord's back was turned.  Mountain farmers, being taxed according to the amount of milk their herds produced, would not fully milk the cows until after the landowner had measured the yield.  The second milking also provided the richest milk and was used to make a creamy cheeses.

First produced in the Thônes and Arly valleys, in the Aravis massif, Reblochon was granted AOC status in 1958 and is subject to strict controls over its production.  The cheese-making process must begin no later than 30 minutes after milking and the finished Reblochon is at its best at around 40 days old.

So, what of the tasting?  Of the six, only one was a red herring, its inclusion serving as an example of all that can go wrong with a cheese - rubbery of texture with a distinctly overly-acidic smell and slightly uric taste.  Two were perfectly good examples of the type, creamy and fruity tasting, their aroma making you long for a dish of Tartiflette.  The other three were more special.  A savoury flavour adding edge to the fruitiness and carrying a hint of the spruce wood to the velvety whey-washed rind.  One was rejected because it wasn't firm enough to stand for long on a cheeseboard  and it's from the remaining two that Mons will choose the Reblochon special  enough to join their list.

A taste of local "Gentiane" digestif brought by Jean-Pierre and we went on our sated way with a determination to look out for that particularly good Mons Reblochon.

Mons Cheesemongers

You can learn more about Reblochon at Culture Cheese Magazine

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Return to The Green Man and French Horn

Game Consommé at
The Green Man and French Horn

It's now almost a year since I wrote about The Green Man and French Horn which opened in September 2012.  Since then it's garnered a string of awards so I thought I'd give you a quick update.  First, you might want to read my original piece to save me from repeating myself: The Green Man and French Horn

I've returned a number of times since then and a revisit today convinced me this place has to be offering the best value meal in town right now.  You can still expect to pay around £40-45 a head, and it's still a lovely menu, but it's the amazing value 'Theatre Menu' which makes it stand out.  Between 12.00-19.00 The Green Man and French Horn offers 2 courses for £12.50 or 3 courses for £15.00 with a choice of 3 starters, 3 mains and 2 dishes at dessert.  The menu changes daily but today for instance you could choose from starters of Pork Rillettes, Game Consommé or Beetroot, anchovy & Walnuts; mains of Hake, mussels, capers & tomatoes, Galette Bretonne with Vendee ham, eggs & cheese or Sausage & Puy lentils; Desserts of White chocolate mousse & Muscat grapes or Crêpes with salted butter caramel. 

Hake, mussels, capers & tomatoes at
The Green Man and French Horn

The consommé was gamey yet delicate and pepped up with herbs of parsley and tarragon.  A perfectly cooked fillet of hake was served on a herby broth with mussels and tomatoes and a kick of capers.  The crêpes with salted butter caramel were utterly delicious.  With glasses each of Milliard d'Etoile Domaine de la Garretiére at £6.00 and a 2004 Vouvray Les Morandières Domaine Lemaire-Fournier at  £4.75 the bill was a bargain at just under £60 for two including service.  I know of no better deal in London.

Crêpes with Salted butter caramel at
The Green Man and French Horn

What's more, Ed Wilson is still in the kitchen and Laura is still behind the bar.  This place is every bit as good as it looks.

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

Monday, 14 October 2013

Autumn in Córdoba and a moment in Málaga

Wall painting detail in Alcazar, Cordoba

Could Cordoba possibly live up to my romantic ideal?  A cancelled flight that lost us a whole 24 hours was not an auspicious start, and arriving anywhere just too late for lunch is unacceptably bad planning. Instead of feeding our stomaches, we were forced to feast on the more cerebral glories of this former Roman capital of Hispania Ulterior and, 8 centuries later, Moorish Al Andalus.  The dry 30C heat of Andalucia  was welcome with the prospect of winter in London looming.  We dropped our bags at the welcoming Hospes Palacio del Bailio Hotel and went to explore.

Cuesta del Bailio, Cordoba

Cordoba has beauty around almost every corner.  White-washed or yellow ochre painted houses adorned with tumbling bougainvillaea or heavily-scented jasmine; cool, shaded courtyards; gardens; fountains; narrow winding lanes and the sudden reveal of a church, mosque or synagogue.  Moorish, Christian, Roman and Visigoth sit companionably alongside, and sometimes inside, one another.  Apart from the pleasures of simply wandering, there are a few unmissables.

Mezquita, Cordoba

La Mezquita is astonishing.  Visigoth, Moorish and Christian architecture come together to breathtaking effect. Get there between 08.30 and 09.15 to see it at its atmospheric best.  At 10.00 the tour groups arrive and admission charges come in.

Alcazar Gardens, Cordoba

The Alcazar is an impressive meandering fortress.  There's a surprisingly stark peaceful chapel with some beautiful mosaics and there are wonderful Moorish gardens.

Palace of the Marqueses de Viana

The Palace of the Marqueses de Viana is a 15th century mansion with 12 strongly Moorish-influenced gardens.  Lovingly cared for, it's a great place to escape the traffic.  On the subject of traffic, the car is king here even on the narrowest lanes, so be prepared to duck into doorways at a moment's notice.

The Almodovar Gate area,  Cordoba

La Juderia area is close to La Mezquita.  It's a maze of narrow lanes, but then most of Cordoba is like that.  It can begin to feel quite claustrophobic, especially when you come upon a tour group.  If you want to escape these clusters of folk who cling together like limpets, leave La Juderia at The Almodovar Gate, pass the statue to Seneca, and you'll come upon my favourite place in Cordoba.

Between the Medieval wall that enclosed the Jewish Quarter and a row of modest yet covetable residences you'll find a series of cisterns and runnels lined with Oleander.  It's a haven of peace and tranquility that few tourists seem to find. It's also that rare thing in Cordoba, a street where cars are not allowed.

Nearby stands the Roman Bridge …

Roman Bridge, Cordoba

The Roman Bridge forms part of Via Augusta and dates back to the 1st Century BC.  It's an impressive sight spanning the wide Guadaquivir river alongside a bird sanctuary.

Date palm, Cordoba

What about the food?  This is Spain, it's got to be good, right?  Well, I have to say we didn't fare too well. After some digging, we found a Mercado in Plaza Correderia.  Now, I have a theory that a town's food market is a good indicator of its restaurant scene and we found nothing to excite in either.  The ancient menu posted by the door is not something that attracts me either.  The fact that three restaurants on our short list had closed down would indicate a less than thriving dining out culture.  That said, the Bodegas Campos bar and restaurant at Calle de los Lineros 32, owned by the Campos wine company, is pretty good.

Tapas seems to be more appreciated in Cordoba and there are plenty of tapas bars that have been around for many years.  Casa El Pisto at Plaza San Miguel is a traditional place, popular and reliable.  One interesting development is a gastro market which opened this Spring.  Mercado Victoria is housed in the restored Casteta de Circulo, a wrought-iron pavillion on tree-lined Paseo de la Victoria.  Its focused stalls are working hard to attract a mixed crowd.  Buy a plate of freshly carved Bellota from one stall or some freshly fried fish from another.  Pick up a glass of wine or a beer, find a space to suit you and people-watch while you eat. It's a mixed bag but it's lively and fun already.

On to Malaga...

Market stall, Malaga

Malaga is only 50 minutes by fast train from Cordoba, but a world away.  Its market doesn't disappoint and it's not difficult to find a good restaurant.  We spent only a short time in Malaga on this trip but dinner at Refectorium at Calle Cervantes 8 managed to be old school and delicious (no website but there's a new, sleeker El Refectorium at Paseo de la Sierra 36).  The port area of Malaga has been beautifully revived and the City has it's soaring Cathedral and the simply wonderful Museo Picasso.  I'm sure I'll be back to explore the new Museo Carmen Thyssen and more.

Malagan fruits

It was in Malaga that we finally felt inspired to shop -  Malaga raisins, semi-dried figs and almonds, of course.

Did I leave Cordoba with my romatic ideals intact?  My advice is to visit Cordoba to feed the soul, but Malaga to feed the stomach.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Apples at last - Food Find

Brogdale apples at
Neal's Yard Dairy 2013

The English apple harvest is undoubtedly late this year, certainly a good two weeks behind last year.  My barometer for this is the arrival of the apple crates stacked in front of the Neal's Yard Dairy shops in Borough, Covent Garden and, this year, at Spa Terminus too.  In London we've been enjoying the early 'Discovery' apples from the excellent Chegworth Valley for some weeks now but you know harvest is in full swing when the myriad varieties grown at Brogdale in Kent start to arrive.  This week I packed my bag with 'St Edmund's Pippin' and nutty 'Norfolk Royal Russet'.

Varieties change by the week so it's a great opportunity to try just a few of the apples and pears which Brogdalehome of the UK's National Fruit Collection, grows. If you want to try more, Brogdale's annual Apple Festival runs this year on 19-20 October when they expect to have over 200 varieties ready to taste.

Related blog posts:
Neal's Yard Dairy and Brogdale Farm