Thursday, June 28, 2007

Taste of London

Just returned from a gastronomic trip to Alsace. More on choucroute and other such joys later, but for now a few words on a tremendous event that takes place annually in London and which I was lucky enough to attend last Thursday. Taste of London is (according to the blurb) 'a stunning celebration of the best cuisine the city has to offer'. Dozens of foodie stalls line a large section of Regents Park, with producers touting their wares. Everything from tasty chutneys and spicy nibbles to flavoursome English cheeses and Isle of Wight garlic...

But the main attraction are the restaurant pavilions. Dozens of London's best restaurants are represented with top chefs cooking up their signature dishes for the punters to sample. All this comes at a price, of course. After a handsome entry fee, you then have to buy 'crowns' at 50p each in order to exchange for mini-portions of food cooked on the spot for you by world-famous chefs. Dishes cost from four to ten crowns and cover all corners of the world with restaurants as diverse as Boxwood Cafe, Fino, Tamarind, Le Gavroche and Nahm all making their presence felt.
On arrival we decided the best course of action was to get a drink and then make a battle plan. With 41 restaurants each offering 3 dishes, deciding was certainly a challenge. Some choices were easy (Wagyu Beef on hot rocks from Cocoon), others were more tricky (Signature Crisp Pork Belly from Fino or Scallop shumai from Yauatcha?). The evening resulted in many a treat for the taste-buds. First stop for me was Fino for the Pork Belly. The fact that Sam (or Eddie - not sure which is which) Hart actually carved this off with his own fair hands gave an added frisson of excitement as the meltingly tender meat and contrasting crisp skin hit my tongue. Divine - totally lived up to expectations!

Meanwhile, back at base-camp, friends were tucking into the first of three scallop based dishes - Griddled scallops with pea puree and mint vinaigrette from Kensington Place...

Next up was a spot of fish from Gavin at Windows. Seabream served with soupe au pistou was divine. Never mind the fish (which was cooked to perfection - a miracle when considering how many were being dished out), the soupe au pistou was the thing dreams are made of. Oh to re-create that soupe au pistou - all vegetabley, life-giving, comforting and wonderful. Here's to Galvin.

Whist we made short work of the fish (we decided sharing dishes was a cunning way to make the crowns go further), another friend sampled an intriguing dish of Papdi Channa Chaat - whole wheat crisps and spiced chickpeas with sweetened yoghurt, mint chutney, tamarind chutney and a sprinkling of blueberries a pomegranate. It was... interesting (and very pretty).

From the same stall (Tamarind), I tried the Malabar kingfish curry - a winning concoction incorporating onions, tomatoes and ground spices tempered with mustard, fenugreek and curry leaves. All served with steamed rice, haricot beans with lentils, red chillies and coconut. A superb mouthful.

After a breather (aka a wine re-fuel), I headed to Cocoon for one of the night's favourite dishes - the Wagyu beef. Served simply on hot rocks so you could cook it to your liking, it was unbelievably tender and hugely flavoursome. It was so good that when I was unable to offer any to my friends and when I ate the last mouthful, I was so upset that I even considered eating the rocks!

You'd think by now that we might have eaten enough. Oh no. You are under-estimating my stamina! Having brushed shoulders with Angela Hartnett and Aldo Zilli, I carried on. A tasty Tandoori guinea foul with peanuts and mango from the Cinnamon Club was fairly good, a very fiery lamb curry from Zaika was spot on too. Puddings were a little disappointing, unless you like panna cotta (which I don't). In most cases these were 'make in advance' creations that were slightly predictable (lemon tart, chocolate brownies, strawberry and champagne jellies etc). I was too late for the scrummy Boxwood Cafe chocolate fondue but luckily had a tiny taste from a friend...

It would have been nice to see a few more ambitious puddings in line with the ambitious savoury offerings, but maybe I'm just being picky!
At the end of the evening, feeling rather full but still buzzing from the party atmosphere we set off on a quick mine-sweep of any leftovers. With all the food cooked fresh to order, some kindly chefs took pity on our now crownless state and off-loaded some of their leftover wares. A true highlight came at the Theo Randall stand, where Theo himself whipped up a great scallop dish from scratch for my friends and hunted out a rather good chocolate pud for yours truly. He was so obliging, he even posed for a photo...

One Champagne jelly later and it was time to hit the road. A superb way to spend an evening - I was so impressed to find so many of the chefs on site, actually doing the cooking and talking with the dreaded GP (general public). And tremendous that they stick it out for a whole four days. A great opportunity to sample foods from restaurants you might not otherwise afford too. I, for one, shall be back with bells on next year.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Lamb chops with coriander pesto and griddled courgettes

A super speedy weeknight supper which is also rather tasty from the excellent BBC Good Food ( Great for the summer when you fancy something meaty but also crave fresh flavours. The coriander and lemony marinade for the courgettes work really well with the lamb. The courgettes make a great side for lots of other meat dishes too. Or great with other griddled veg as the base of a pasta sauce.

Ingredients (serves 4)

4-6 lamb chops (depending on size though I find most people will eat two)
50g roasted peanuts
20g pack of coriander
4 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic

Juice of one lemon
1 clove chopped garlic
More Olive oil
Mixed dried herbs

1. Whizz together the peanuts, coriander, oil and garlic to make your pesto.

2. Cut the courgettes into long strips and place in bowl with marinade ingredients (lemon, good glugs of olive oil, chopped garlic, lots of dried herbs, salt and pepper).

3. Rub chops in a little oil and season to taste. I added a few more dried herbs here too, just for good measure.

4. Grill the chops for 5 minutes each side. Meanwhile heat a griddle pan until very hot and griddle the courgettes, resisting the temptation to turn too early so that you ensure the nice blackened stripes on each side of the strips.

5. Serve the chops with the pesto drizzled over.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Old Queen's Head, Penn, Buckinghamshire

One day I plan to move out of London. In fact, I look forward to that day. I am a country bumpkin at heart and the hustle and bustle of city life will only excite me for so long. But I have a concern. I am so spoilt in London. I open the door, turn right and then left! A whole street full of great neighbourhood restaurants where I can eat out to my heart's content. So much choice. So much great food on my doorstep. Move to the country and it is all a bit of a gamble. Good food may well mean getting in the car and trekking to the nearest town several miles away.

So, perhaps I should move to Penn in Buckinghamshire. Best not tell my brother-in-law - he might not be too thrilled by the notion of me moving in next door. Though he would save a packet on baby-sitting. The great thing about Penn is The Old Queens Head. A fantastic pub with a great restaurant upstairs, just sitting there, in the middle of the village. Gastro-pub this is not (really). It is more of a proper restaurant within a pub. A jolly nice pub it is too - the dining room apparently dates from 1666, so the website tells me. A pub with a website. A good sign, I think. All very nice, but what about the food?

Delicious. Impressive. Smiles of joy all round. The menu is fairly extensive with a mix of traditional classics and some more... unusual combinations. Some a little off-putting, to be fair. None of us were tempted to order the Roast Amersham Rare-Breed Pork Belly with Crispy Squid on Feta, Pea and Mint Salad. But maybe we were just chicken? Pork, squid and mint is perhaps the new beef and Yorkshire pudding? However, lots of things did tempt. And lots of local ingredients - the goats cheese was froma nearby farm, the wild boar was from up the road. It was hard to decide. I started with ham hock and leek terrine with a caper and mustard sauce and a roast red onion muffin. It was first class. The flavours worked beautifully well together although the muffin was ever-so-slightly superfluous. I think I would have preferred a hunk of crusty bread. Others thoroughly enjoyed a rather good goats cheese and roasted beetroot salad.

The rib-eye steak came highly recommended - it would have been churlish to have chosen otherwise. It was tasty and perfectly cooked and came with crispy onions and a special spicy tomato relish that was quite interesting. Roast lamb rump with pine nut crust on tomato polenta cake with artichoke puree was also deemed delicious.

By this stage I was fit to burst. But the arrival of the pudding menu heralded new-found joy. Would it be the Tarte Tatin?

Or the chocolate brownie with marmalade ice-cream?

The chocolate brownie won! Less brownie, more slightly over-cooked chocolate fondant (in a good way) this was hot, sticky, deeply chocolatey and I wish I had one with me right now. The marmalade ice cream was an excellent partner - lovely bitter-sweet flavour to it.
Perhaps the thing that impressed me most about The Old Queens Head was the selection of pudding wines by the glass. At most restaurants you are lucky to have one of two offered by the glass. Here there were 10 (to say nothing of Port or Sherry). This meant we could select three to match our individual desserts. With the appley Tarte Tatin, we opted for the Vendimia Tardia Riesling, 2003 from Chile (£2.35 per glass) with the two chocolate brownies we had Banyuls Cuvee Parce Freres 2004 (£3.25 per glass) and Stanton and Kileen Rutherglen Muscat (£2.25 per glass). Chocolate matches best with fortified wines - the Banyuls is a sweet red and the Rutherglen Muscat a deeply dark and sticky deliciousness - great with the ice cream too. I was in heaven.
I can't wait to go back!
Hammersley Lane, Penn, Buckinghamshire
01494 813371

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sticky Gingerbread

I loathe the impending doom that comes with Sunday night. The first few bars of Antiques Roadshow and thoughts reluctantly return to work-related matters (usually, do I have any clean clothes to wear for the office tomorrow?). Recently I have been trying to end my weekend on a positive note of achievement and comfort - a spot of baking fits the bill perfectly and is now becoming something of a Sunday night ritual. The fruits of my labours are taken proudly to work the next morning and usually devoured by 11am by hungry colleagues.

I am always amazed how many competent cooks come unstuck when it comes to baking. Many profess that they 'can't do it' despite being accomplished in other culinary matters. Whilst it is entirely acceptable to buy a cake, a homemade one is always so much better and really takes so little effort. Follow a recipe and you simply can't go wrong. Perhaps this is the problem? Many good cooks are not recipe followers and instead are of the 'throw it all together' school. I am in admiration, certainly, but baking is scientific. Ignore the quantities and measurements at your peril. Once you have a basic recipe, by all means fiddle as much as you like, but to start with you need to have the right ratios of ingredients to guarantee success every time.

This very grown-up loaf cake is a great place to start. It is super speedy - the preparations took me just 10 minutes. Honestly. And the kitchen smelt wonderful - all heady and spicy. I urge you to try it!

The origins of the recipe are unknown. I was given it on a cookery course at The Edinburgh School of Food and Wine (see favoured foodie links).


4oz soft margarine
4oz soft dark brown sugar
4oz black treacle
1 egg - lightly beaten
1/4 pint milk
6oz plain flour
2 level tsp ground ginger
2 level tsp ground cinnamon
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda

For optional icing -
Icing sugar
Lemon juice

1. Pre-heat oven to 150C.
2. Grease and line a 1lb loaf tin.
3. Melt sugar, margarine and treacle in a small pan, very gently.
4. Sift flour, spices and bicarb into a large bowl.
5. Add melted contents of pan into dry ingredients - mix well to combine.
6. Add milk to pan, warm gently and then add to mix.

7. Add the beaten egg. Stir to combine until completely smooth.
8. Pour into prepared tin.
9. Bake for 45 minutes on lowest shelf of oven (DO NOT OPEN OVEN).

10. When cool, top with lemon icing, if wished.

Notes -
It is almost impossible to weigh the treacle! The best method is to weigh sugar, marg and treacle in the saucepan as per this picture...

The gingerbread improves well with keeping and freezes very well.
I had run out of cinnamon and so substituted mixed spice which worked fine, but next time I'd probably revert to the cinnamon.

The icing is suggested by Nigella Lawson - the cake is delicious without, but I agree with her that it provides a nice contrast to the musky spices of the cake.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Thomas Cubitt

Elizabeth Street, Belgravia. 7pm. Any weeknight. Walking past the dozens or boutiques, foodie shops and cafes on Elizabeth Street, you hear it first. A gentle buzz that gets louder and louder as you draw near. Then you see it. A crowd of people gathered on the pavement, gin and tonics in hand, laughing, joking and generally having a jolly good time.

Closer inspection reveals an attractive bunch of young professionals. Estate agents possibly. Rather up-market ones. They probably work for Savills. You look closer and see that they are gathered outside a pub. Nothing odd about that. But it is a rather smart pub. And the crowd is rather neatly stowed behind a plush velvet rope swinging merrily between some rather shiny new posts.
Something about it the orderly manner in which the punters are positioned behind the barrier (along with the way they politely adhere to the notice asking them not to stray into the neighbouring Mews) made me want to go in. I was fairly sure that the food would be overpriced and rather poncey, but I was prepared to take a risk (possibly the attractive clientele were an added incentive). So, on Thursday night, I did just that.

I arrived before my dining companion and was immediately disappointed on seeing the usual swathe of bodies - was there no room at the inn? Fortunately, whilst the pavement was heaving with post work banter, there were plenty of free tables at the rear of the pub, reserved for those eating. I studied the wine list. Pretty good. 11 different Champagnes for starters. A decent selection of offerings by the glass. Perhaps a little 'safe' for my liking, but there are a few more adventurous choices such as a favourite of mine - Limoux Toques et Clochers at £20 and Craggy Range Te Kahu Cabernet Merlot from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand at £32 . Some gaps too though. In a selection of 11 whites there were 4 sauvignon blancs and 4 chardonnays and not a riesling to be seen. Boo hiss. And no vintages - always an irritation. Was feeling a little disappointed by this but then spotted that there is a larger selection on the main wine list for the (more swanky) restaurant upstairs. Good. Nice glass of Prosecco cheered me up too as I surveyed the clean, comfortable surroundings (think cream walls, scrubbed pine tables, flattering lighting).

My friend arrived with her (admittedly small) dog in toe. No one batted an eyelid and said dog was even given a small ramekin of water to drink from when requested. The menu. Excellent. Nothing poncey here. Good gastropub fare. All boxes ticked. Fish and chips. Pie of the day with potato and pea puree (it looked superb). Bangers and mash with red onion gravy. Steak and chips. Fish of day (sea bream). Smoked haddock fish cakes with watercress, fennel and Champagne cream. Salt pork with colcannon. Plus some other more imaginative but correctly 'pubby' dishes that sounded equally tempting. Lighter dishes included traditional ploughmans, wonderfully tempting sandwiches (river trout with horseradish cream and cucumber).

I plumped for the perhaps predictable burger. It was excellent - really good organic flavoursome beef with just the right level of herbs and seasoning, a good seeded bun, homemade tomato and horseradish relish. Hit the spot in a big way though the chips were slightly disappointing - not quite crispy enough. They obviously were not too bad though as my plate was very clean. Rib-eye steak with Bearnaise was equally delicious. Puds were weaker, though partly because we ordered badly. The chocolate and orange cheesecake was mainly white chocolate (a pet hate) but the treacle tart was good though I think I make a better one (!).

All in all, I was impressed. Good proper pub food with a gastro edge. Attractive customers (and waiters) to pass the time whilst your companion is in the loo. A good wine list. And fairly reasonably priced. I say, 'go'!

The Thomas Cubitt, 44 Elizabeth Street, Belgravia, London, SW1W 9PA

The supermarket - foodie friend or foe?

I would dearly love to write here and tell you that I do all my food shopping at quaint little markets and small quality local shops. I have a lovely image in my mind of me wafting down the Northcote Road dressed in linen carrying a wicker basket filled with goodies: bread from the Lighthouse Bakery, organic meat from Dove and fresh veg from the market. It is true that I like nothing better than a food-orientated stroll down the aforementioned road in London's Battersea. In fact, it is one of my favoured weekend activities. But, alas, life is not just one long weekend. During the week most of these wonderful shops are closed by the time I get home from the daily grind and (unless I have been super organised and 'planned ahead'), if I want to eat I find myself heading to the dreaded supermercado.

Whilst supporting local businesses is something I wholeheartedly encourage, it is sadly not always practical. Who can honestly say that the convenience factor of having everything 'under one roof' is not a godsend to the ever-busy consumer? Whilst hitting a certain large branch Sainsburys earlier today, I felt a curious melange of irritation and wonder at the retail experience I was encountering...

You may have noticed that my initial reference to the supermarket incorporated the word 'dreaded'. This is because I approach one with a certain level of dread running through my veins. The whole idea of aisles upon aisles of stuff I don't want - jumbo packs of crisps, microwavable chicken tikka, bars of chocolate the size of my head (actually, I wouldn't mind one of those!), freezers full of frozen roast dinners for one and microwavable pizzas - is enough to make me race back to the comparative safety of my car. And all the other people with their trolleys bashing into yours - ugghh. And all the marketing - glorious multi-coloured displays of things 'not on the list' that almost throw themselves into your trolley. Shelf-stickers duping you with their 'Buy one get one free' messages (read:buy one, take another home which won't fit in your fridge and will almost certainly have gone mouldy by the time you get around to eating it). Tasting samples of wine served in ridiculous plastic shot glasses. Completely and totally awful.

Despite all this, I enjoyed today's trip to Sainsburys. Sure there were too many people. Yes there were a lot of things I didn't want. But there were also an impressive number of things that I really did want. Great variety, plenty of specialist ingredients and lots of seasonal British produce. I have, in fact, just eaten a bowl of organic strawberries (from Kent) and raspberries (from Scotland). They were most delicious. Amongst the items in my trolley today were unwaxed lemons, creme de marrons, a selection of green teas, shampoo, smoked rainbow trout, sweet potatoes, a Hydrangea plant cress and sun-blush tomatoes. I still find it fairly impressive to find all these things under one roof even if the experience is rather impersonal.

Perhaps my biggest gripe on the subject of supermarkets is that they do not cater well for the single person. As a twenty-something singleton living solo I find that I produce an embarrassing amount of food waste. You simply can't buy things in portions for one - I might like a salmon fillet but I have to buy two, or one chicken breast. Perhaps I have a craving for sugar snap peas - sorry! You have buy a pack that will feed a family of four. Did I not mention that I my craving is unlikely to last for four days in a row? Apparently, over 40% of the UK population now live in single-person households - why do the supermarkets not cater for them? No doubt they would answer that they do. One only need to look at the raft of individual person ready-meals that line the aisles to see that this is where they believe they meet the needs of the busy singleton. What they have failed to realise is that they are some busy singletons that actually like to cook!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Salmon noodle parcels with chilli, coriander and lime butter

This recipe is one I found in BBC Good Food Magazine ( and is ideal for a quick but delicious weeknight supper, or even worthy of serving at a casual dinner party. It caught my eye as it was part of a feature on flavoured butters and I just so happened to have some chilli, coriander and lime butter in the freezer which needed using up. Flavoured butters are so handy to have stored in the freezer or the fridge as they instantly perk up all sorts of plain dishes from grilled meats to steamed vegetables. In one book I have, it suggests they will keep for up to 9 months in the freezer (BBC Good Food suggest one month), but certainly they will last a good while and are an excellent standby.

So first, the butter...

250g/8oz unsalted butter, softened
1 large handful of chopped coriander
1 fresh red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
1 tbsp lime juice AND/OR the rind of 1 lime
Good pinch sea salt
Good grinding black pepper

1. Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender and whizz until well blended.

2. Scrape out the butter onto a square of foil or cling film and roll up like a sausage, securing the ends -

3. Refrigerate or freeze. Slice small rounds off the butter as and when needed.

Notes - this butter is delicious with corn on the cob, grilled chicken and most fish.

Other ways to flavour butter (thanks to 'Barbecue' by Eric Treuille and Birgit Erath as well as BBC Good Food for ideas)-

Garlic and parsley (5 crushed cloves, 1tbsp lemon juice, handful parsley)

Blue Cheese (use 4 oz and plenty of pepper but not salt). Great on steak.

Black olives (use 100g and some thyme leaves)

Basil, Parmesan and tomato (4tbsp grated Parmesan, basil and 1tbsp sun dried tomatoes).

Horseradish and chive (2 tbsp horseradish cream, lots of pepper, 2 tbsp chopped chives). Try with trout.

Onto the salmon dish -

Ingredients (for 2)

2 salmon fillets

100g/2oz rice noodles

2 handfuls of frozen peas (or fresh, when in season)

85g/3oz chilli, coriander and lime butter

3 spring onions

1. Pre-heat oven to 200C. Put noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for 2 minutes until bendable but not too soft. Drain well. Add chopped spring onions, peas, salt and pepper and a third of the butter.

2. Mix until butter starts to melt (see notes).

3. Pile noodle mixture onto 2 large squares of baking paper and place salmon on top. Slice remaining butter and place on top of the salmon.

4. Make a parcel with the paper - bring both sides to the centre and fold, tuck ends under so there are no gaps.

5. Bake in the oven on a baking sheet for 15-20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Notes - My local shop did not have regular rice noodles, only the ones that are already cooked and go 'straight to wok'. I was worried these would not be as good, but they were in fact excellent. Of course they were cold so I had to melt the butter before mixing in and then cooked the salmon for slightly longer as the dish did not have the initial blast of heat from the noodles.

If you have guests, I would recommend serving these in their parcels at the table as the aromatic fug that emanates upon opening the parcels is wonderful!

Wine Suggestions -

A nice fresh, aromatic sauvignon blanc from New Zealand or South Africa would work well here, as would a limey New World Riesling. We enjoyed it with a slightly herby, slightly off-dry rose from Bandol which was delicious

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Salmon en Croute with Orange and Spinach

On Friday I went for supper with a friend who is moving to Jersey later this month where she and her boyfriend plan to open a great pub. I shall miss them for various reasons, but one is that she is the most superb cook and an invitation to supper cooked by her is always one of the most welcome. She pulls out all the stops and no matter what she cooks up, it is always delicious (and always accompanied by great wine - like me they both currently work in the wine trade).

Friday was no exception. We started with Bollinger Champagne and quails eggs with celery salt. Perfectly cooked and, I might add, expertly peeled by what can only be her very patient (or very long-suffering) boyfriend. There is, I am afraid, no way you will find me peeling quails eggs to serve for nibbles - I am sorry to say that I leave this activity to my guests. But how lovely it was to enjoy them ready peeled. I felt like Lady Muck.

To start, we had pan-fried chicken livers which had been coated in a little flour spiked with smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Served with fried onions and a little mint raita, they were extremely good. They prompted a discussion on offal (most present confessed to not being huge fans but were converted on trying these melt-in-the-mouth offerings). Apparently lots of offal will be on the menu in the Jersey pub and the landlady will be forcing people to try it! I am not certain how successful she will be, but she is certainly not one to argue with and if those chicken livers are anything to go by, then I am sure she will convert many. She tried to convince us that duck hearts on toast was an excellent breakfast... Can't say I'm totally convinced, but I'll be sure to order the 'full English' when I visit her pub and sample the hearts if included!

Next we had a wonderful Salmon en Croute. The salmon (preferably wild or organic) had been marinated in orange juice and then two fillets sandwiched together with spinach, orange rind and cream cheese. Sandwich them together with the thin side against the fat side of the other, so that you form a roughly rectangular shape. Wrap in ready-made puff pastry (life is too short, is it not?), decorate with left over bits and brush with egg or milk. This was a huge one, so it cooked happily in a medium oven for an hour. The pastry case keeps the fish beautifully moist.

With this we drank a delicious Vacheron Sancerre and a superb Meursault, 2000 from Drouhin. I think it would be excellent with a full-flavoured rose too.

For pudding, one of my favourites. Rice pudding. I adore all of those nursery-type puddings. This one was satisfyingly solid yet creamy with a wonderful nutmeg flavour and was accompanied by plums stewed with Marsala, the juice thickened with a little arrowroot. A thoroughly grown-up take on the dish.

I must conclude by complimenting the soon-to-be landlord's home-made bread. He has hidden talents, it seems. I look forward to dining in the Jersey pub and wish them every success - if Friday is anyting to go by, they are sure to do well!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Cheese and Wine

Mmmm. Look at all that cheese. The above photo (and others within this posting) were taken in the best shop in Montreuil-sur-Mer - a rather attractive walled town that is in fact not 'sur mer' at all, but in fact an hour from Calais, half an hour inland from Le Touquet. I visit often for work and 'Chez Caseus' is superb - you can smell the wares before you even enter the shop and once in I challenge anyone to walk away empty handed. Even if they don't like cheese (are there people who don't like cheese?).

Anyway, the purpose of this entry is not to extol the virtues of M.Caseus (does anyone know how to do accents on this blogging thing? It is driving me mad), but in fact to talk a little about matching wine with cheese.

Long hailed as the ultimate match made in heaven, cheese and wine actually make trickier partners than you might imagine. Contrary to popular belief, big red wines are not necessarily good with cheese and it is often dry or sweet whites which make better partners.

Why is cheese tricky to match with wine? It is high in fat (sadly), often quite salty and often has a melting, mouth-coating texture. The problem with 'big' reds is that the saltiness does not mix well with the tannins - the combined taste is unpleasant, somewhat bitter.

A further problem (or 'challenge') is the issue of the cheeseboard. A wedge of cheddar, a spot of brie and a nice stinky blue for good measure. Mmm. Delicious. Perhaps some goats' cheese too? These cheeses are as different as... (trying to think of alternative to chalk and cheese...) salmon and beef - it is impossible to find one wine that will compliment all of these cheeses. Far better to choose just one or two spectacular cheeses from one 'family' (hard, soft, goat, blue) and then select a wine to match.

So, all very well, but what DOES go well with cheeses? A few general tips to start.

1. Hard cheeses are the easiest on wine - if you want to serve a special red, be kind and serve something like a mature Gouda or Comte cheese.

2. Soft, runny cheeses such as brie are the trickiest - you have been warned!
3. Blue cheeses are great with sweet wines.

4. Regional combinations are often the best.

Some delicious combinations -

Goats' Cheese and Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire - a regional combination that works brilliantly. The acidity in the wine mirrors that of the cheese as well as cutting through the mouth-coating, almost cloying consistency.

Roquefort and Sauternes - A heavenly contrast between the saltiness of the the cheese and unctious sweetness of the wine.

Munster and Alsace Gewurztraminer

Vacherin and Red Burgundy

Manchego and Fino Sherry

Other ideas to try -

Oloroso sherries with hard cheeses and sweet olorosos with blue cheeses
Port with Stilton
Oaked Chardonnay with a creamy Cheddar
Beaujolais with washed rind cheeses such as Epoisses (Beaujolais is one of the most cheese-friendly reds due to its youthful fruitiness and low tannins)

There are many more great partnerships and I plan to add to this list - I love to hear your favoured combinations too.

Cheats' chicken satay stir-fry

This is seriously speedy yet rather delicious (even if I say so myself). It has a sweet yet warm kick and health injecting 'greenness' to it that I crave when I am feeling coldy or run-down. The chilli peps you up and the copious veg make you feel virtuous whilst the rich peanutty sauce gives a satisfying richness.

Ingredients (for one)

1 chicken breast, cut into strips
1 small red onion, sliced (or half a large one - take your pick!)
Plenty of stir-fry friendly leaves such as bok choi and spinach
Sugar snap peas or mange tout
A little chopped fresh red chilli (to taste)
A selection of other veg - I use some of the following: peanut shoots, thin asparagus, peppers, broccoli, carrots cut into thin strips, bean-sprouts
1 heaped teaspoon crunchy peanut butter
2 tablespoons sweet chilli sauce (or more, to taste)
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
Fresh coriander

1. Chop/prepare all ingredients.
2. Heat oil in a wok. Add red onion and stir-fry until translucent and soft.
3. Add chicken strips. Fry for 3-4 minutes.
4. Add any veg that require a little extra cooking time (e.g. pepper, carrots).
5. Drizzle over the soy sauce.
6. Add peanut butter and stir until it 'melts' into the wok. Add a little water to loosen and to make the dish a little more 'saucy'!
7. Add sweet chilli sauce.
8. Add other veg and stir-fry until chicken and veg are cooked (a further 3-4 mins), again adding a little more water if necessary.
9. Top with fresh coriander on a bed of rice, if wished. Or just in a bowl on its own if you so desire.

Notes - The fresh chilli may seem unnecessary, but it adds an extra dimension and very different heat to the sweet chilli. For a richer treat, you could add a little coconut milk to the sauce.

Wine suggestions - Spicy foods go brilliantly well with aromatic white wines, such as those from Alsace. Riesling and Gewurztraminer are good choices. I drank an Australian Riesling with this tonight - it was just off-dry which worked well with the slight sweetness emanating from the sweet chilli sauce.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Le Touquet - The Market and Chez Perard

A weekend trip to France, part work part pleasure, took me to Le Touquet for the day. Having taken in the glorious sweeping beach, sand sculpture exhibition (!) and a seriously sour citron presse, I headed to the market. I love a good French market. There is something about the way they display even the most ordinary of ingredients that shows just how much they care about food.

Behold the glorious fushia and ivory glow of the radishes above! Did ever you see such a dazzling display of radishes? Peter Rabbit eat your heart out. I think my mother who was also enjoying the market thought I had lost it when I started to take photos of the radishes. And then the lettuces. And then the fish. Perhpas she had a point... All I knew was that I wanted to fill my imaginary wicker basket with all this beautiful produce.

Without a stove there was no point in buying any of the glistening poissons so I guided my now hungry parents to the next best thing. A certain restaurant named 'Chez Perard'. This is THE place to eat fish in Le Touquet. It is famous for its fish soup - you can buy it by the six pack to take home (needless to say, we did).

Once installed on the sun-drenched terasse privilege, we ordered some Sancerre from Chateau de Sancerre. I've had better, but it certainly hit the spot as did the large umbrellas that shaded us from the sun's glare. My father went for grilled lobster. You can't get much fresher than this...

Five minutes later, Laurent the Lobster returned pink and delicious. My mother opted for the spectacular plateau de fruits de mer. She went for the starter size - a good move. It was substantial, piled high with oysters, crab, winkles, whelks, langoustines and shrimps. It also came with a faintly alarming selection of weapons.

I went for a skate wing which was swimming merrily in a rich, lemon-spiked butter sauce and liberally sprinkled with capers which provided a welcome contrasting sharp 'bite'. Fish and vegetables were cooked to perfection.

Puddings were good in a very French, quite rustic sort of way. Iles Flotantes were suitably floaty, lemon meringue tart was refreshingly lemony and meringuey and creme brulee was exactly how you'd expect. Good and honest. But you don't come to Perard for the puddings. You come here for the fish. And it is unlikely you'll be disappointed.

Chez Perard, 67 rue de Metz, Le Touquet

Red Mullet and Saffron Linguine

I credit a certain Patrick Zahara for this dish which he cooked for us on holiday. The recipe is a vague one, but you'll get the idea. In small helpings it makes an impressive starter but would be equally good as a main course. I have not given quantities - use initiative as a guide to how much fish per person!


Red mullet (or other fish - no mullet on offer, Patrick used a mixture of sea bass, sole and bream)
Shallots, chopped very finely
Red chilli (medium hot - not birdseye), finely chopped
Parsley, chopped
Tomato puree
Garlic, finely chopped
Long pasta of choice - linguine or tagliatelle preferably
Olive oil

1. Heat olive oil in a pan. Fry the chopped shallots until translucent. Add the garlic and chilli, taking care not to burn.
2. Add a little tomato puree for sweetness.
3. Lightly fry the fish, adding more olive oil if necessary.
4. Meanwhile cook the pasta.
5. Add a little saffron and then add drained pasta to the pan with plenty of parsley. Heat gently and stir to coat pasta.

Summer Berry Pavlova

There is nothing wrong with the odd culinary throwback to the eighties. Can't say I'm a fan of cheese and pineapple on sticks, but I do love a Pavlova. The contrast of the crisp meringue shell and its marshmallowey interior, the cream streaked with berry juice - delicious. It is spectacularly easy to make yet always impresses when placed ceremoniously on the table.

Ok, so the picture isn't good. The light was bad. I was on holiday, give me a break! I hope you will be impressed though that the holiday cottage was without electric whisk - this meringue was whisked by HAND, dear readers (with a little help from a friend)...


4 egg whites
8oz caster sugar
1 tsp raspberry vinegar
1 tsp cornflour

Raspberries or other fresh summer berries
Medium pot of double cream.

For syrup (optional)
1 packet frozen summer berries
100g sugar

1. Pre-heat oven to 140C. Whisk egg whites until stiff peaks form.

2. Add sugar a little at a time whilst continuing to whisk. Keep whisking until the mixture becomes glossy.

3. Stir in vinegar and cornflour (see notes).

4. Spoon mixture onto sheet of greaseproof paper lying on a large baking sheet for support. Ideally in a circle. Make the sides slightly higher than the middle by spooning large blobs of mixture round the edge then filling in the middle.

5. Bake at low heat for 1 - 1 1/2 hours until shell is crisp but not brown.

6. Once cool, whip the cream and dollop over the meringue base. Sprinkle with fruit of your choice.

7. If wished, make a fruit syrup. Push bag of frozen berries through a sieve into a pan. Add 150ml water to the juice and then the sugar. Heat gently until sugar is dissolved and then turn up heat and simmer until liquid is reduced in volume by two thirds. You will be left with a delicious syrup to drizzle over the top of your pavlova.

Notes -

If you can't find raspberry vinegar, any white wine vinegar will do. Just don't leave it out or the pav won't have that marshmallowey centre. The cornflour is also vital!

The fruit syrup is delicious on ice cream or yoghurt too.

Try other fruits. Oranges are good in winter. Squeeze the juice from two large oranges to make an orange syrup.

This is an easy recipe to remember by heart - for each egg, use 2oz sugar.