Monday, 19 September 2011

up brockenback mountain

The proposition of an impromptu trip to Germany initially left me feeling - well - nichts much. A self confessed Francophile, I am generally biased towards France, Spain and Italy. Germany has never really appealed if I'm honest.
Due to meet a very lovely old friend in her German boyfriend's hometown near Hannover, I googled said city and read the usual (museums, gardens, church, river, zoo…) Expecting a weekend of generally pleasant sightseeing, supping kaffee und kuchen and laughing at unfeasibly long German nouns was about the sum of what I expected during my Deutsche weekend. How wrong I was.
ilsenburg lake

view from the brocken

First off, Hannover was a distant 2 hour drive away from the picturesque small town of Ilsenburg, nestling at the north foot of the Harz mountains. No busy roads, thronging tourists, overpriced schnitzel here - just simply beautiful Hansel & Gretel style houses, all with their own burst of individuality and painstakingly tended gardens awash with colour and quirky touches. So peaceful as to be almost silent, we hardly ever saw people walking through the streets - far from being eerie (although a few Fritzl comments were made - cellars anyone?!) this lent the town an olde worlde feel. People just generally seemed happy pottering in their homes and gardens, at one with nature. Excess water was all collected in butts for gardens, there's no wastage - herbs are hung up to dry, berries left fermenting in bottles for home brewed booze. Swans paddled slowly across the big lake in the town centre, as the sun shone over lush woodland rising up the mountains beyond. Enough of the picture painting - lets get down to the heart of the matter - the food.

For someone who loves cheese and bread, a German breakfast ticked all the right boxes for me - freshly baked rolls and rye bread with butter and homemade jams, fresh fruit, ham and cheeses of all varieties was a hearty way to start the day and fuel us for mountain climbing up the aptly named Brocken (back), the highest peak in the Harz mountain range. We hopped on a steam train which wound it's way up to the summit, where we watched a load of sorry souls reaching the halfway point of an ardous marathon and being whacked on the bum with a broom by the legendary Brocken witch. Lunch at the top of the mountain consisted of a savoury warming Kartoffelsuppe, a potato broth, with the most wonderfully creamy rice pudding or Milchreis, I have ever had the fortune to sample. Topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar and a slick of cherry or apple compote I was honoured to be eating not only the best rice pud ever but the highest in Northern Germany


Walking back down the mountain took it's toll on my knees, however we diverged from the beaten track onto the soft floor of the dense woodland, stepping on lichen, fern and an abundance of wild mushrooms. The national parkland that surround Ilsenburg is full to bursting with gourmet shrooms, including chanterelle and porcini, which sell for a handsome price to the surrounding high class restaurants. Accompanied by a pilz expert, I was shown how to hunt down the vivid orange hue of the pfifferlinge and how to twist and pull it from the earth, dust and cut it's stem and check for worms/dryness/age. I also discovered the pepperpilz, a spicy tasting mushroom, the blood mushroom with a reddy orange stem, the hex mushroom which turns a witchy blue when cut, the devil and goat's lip mushrooms and a plump specimen which only 10% of the population find deadly… I also found a giant porcini the size of my foot, or bigger, which gave me the giggles.
With a bag full of chanterelles, the tip from the top was to fry them lightly with some butter and garlic, and eat simply with pasta, a dash of cream and a sprinkling of chives. Divine.

the forest
chanterelling hard

The Germans love their soup. We had our fair share of supping suppe when sitting down to have drinks al fresco, as we ordered from an extremely limited bar menu. Thin, watery soup with processed noodles and veg, a meaty concoction and what can only be described as a bowl of lardons coated in thick cream and melted cheese, were presented to us with local beer. Oddly enough the soups slipped down ok, but this was more down to hunger than delicatesse. We had a delightful bbq experience dining with uber hospitable Germans. A fresh, herby, zesty tomato salad made with homegrown onions, cucumber and green and yellow tomatoes, followed by perfectly flame cooked bratwurst. Crispy, smooth skins giving way to tasty meat, accompanied with ketchup, mustard and tzatziki. Stuffed to the gills with tender steaks topped with wild mushrooms softly sauteed and crusty bread with homemade garlic butter, it was all we could do to huddle in the rustic summer house with a few morsels of dark chocolate and plenty of wine and home brewed liqeur. Many crystal tumblers later, we were all suitably sozzled on this wine coloured elixir - the only way to describe it is boozy ribena. Blackcurrants picked and fermented in glass bottles in the sun with just korn (a German colourless spirit) and a dash of brown sugar, this stuff was to die for. Hand luggage prevented me bringing a bottle back, but to be honest it's probably for the best - she was found, in a hazy stupor, lying in a pool of Germany's best blackcurrants…

super fresh salad
steak n shrooms

wine n liqueur
I noticed that the Germans don't appear to be huge fans of dessert. They would rather OD on cream, meat, cheese and booze (lots of it) than faff around with some puff pastry and icing sugar. In fact coffee and cake seems to the be the done thing, and a torte or heavy pie while we're at it. Dining out started and ended with booze, and the menu was brimming with fried schnitzel, pasta, potatoes in various forms, steaks, chicken and soups. A starter soup someone ordered can only be described as a bowl of garlic butter. Portions are generous and filling. Nobody is leaving the table full, or sober, for that matter.
My German weekend was a welcome relief from the busy busy, disposable days of London. I felt like I'd stepped back in time for a weekend. If you get the chance to visit Ilsenburg, I highly recommend it. And don't forget, if you get lost you are not on einbahnstraBe*…

*one way street. We wrongly assumed this sign was the name of the road we were living on. Could prove dangerous when drunk and searching for a signpost which does exist, but many times over!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

albion, shoreditch

With a blink and you've missed it summertime, we've somehow slipped into those drizzly autumnal inbetween-ish months when you wake up and don't quite know what to wear in the morning. Sudden sun breaks through brooding clouds, only to be swallowed up again (usually when it's time for your lunch break...) and suddenly those nice cropped jeans and pumps just aren't cutting it anymore. It's time to pull out the furs and boots - or is it? Same applies to eating out - al fresco dining around this time of year is a hit and miss affair. A balmy early evening, supping cocktails and nibbling tapas on a fortuitously spied prime outside table, can suddenly be spoilt rotten with incoming freezing gusts of wind or a flash downpour. Oh Albion! At times like this it's good to cover all your bases and pick somewhere where indoor and outdoor, and even inbetweeny, options are available for savvy diners. One such spot is the warm and laid back Albion Cafe, in 'trendy' Shoreditch. Ok you may have to put up with the odd skinny jeaned, brogued up and tousle haired hipster but they'll be more of the yummy daddy, solo book reading type - you won't tend to get the more irritating shoulder padded, Deirdre bespectacled oddballs of deepest Hoxton hanging out here. Albion is reassuringly tucked away on Boundary St, with outside tables and a completely open frontage (at this time of month) on a quiet residential street away from the hustle and bustle of surrounding Brick Lane, Sditch High St and Spitalfields. Here you can kick back and relax with a hearty brunch, lazy lunch or chilled out supper with good quality food in calm surroundings... and still be close to the bars and buzz should you wish to move on there afterwards.

albion by day
Albion is sold as a 'cafe' however it's more of a luxe caff/homely restaurant, definitely suitable for a couples treat or a low key date night. Tables inside are cosy and warm, with those outside or in the open frontage available for warmer/braver customers.  Food is top notch, a little on the pricey side but truly filling, and you certainly won't leave feeling like you need a kebab chaser. With typically British grub, harking back to that retro era of kippers and devilled kidneys, Albion is a meat lovers dream with pies, chops, sausage and mash, fish and chips and stodgy puddings for the greedy punter. We plumped for the kedgeree and the fish pie - gorgeously spiced rice with lightly smoked haddock and delicately hard boiled eggs, while the pie was satisfyingly creamy with decent chunks of prawn and fish, topped with a very buttery smooth mash. Complimentary fresh baked bread is also served before the courses, with salted butter. We visited on a Sunday evening, and tucking in at one of the outdoor tables, enjoying the quiet night, fresh air and warming food, this rare spot felt rather well hidden and unknown. However it must be said that daytimes are particularly busy, and if you fancy a spot for weekend brunch be prepared to queue. The bakery is stocked with fresh produce and gorgeous crusty bread, cakes and muffins on a daily basis, so you can always start nibbling while u wait if hunger is striking...

It may feel like it's not part of the east end massive, but unfortunately - it is. And Shoreditch prices do creep in on the drinks menu with teeny tumblers of, admittedly good, red wine at a horrendous £7 a pop, with a large glass going hard at £9! I do recommend the bloody marys and elderflower refresher, if you fancy a cheeky aperitif or a boozy brunch fuel - but be prepared to fork out. Next door there is also the French Boundary bar and restaurant. A more luxurious and lofty affair, it's a great place to start; take the lift up to the rooftop for a pre-dinner cocktail watching the sunset or if the rain starts pouring down, head to the sleek and chic bar for an expertly mixed Martini - then head next door to Albion, kick off your brogues, push back those gawjuss locks, shrug off that corduroy blazer and slouch back as you enjoy one of those rare blissful London moments where for just a minute you can switch off and forget where you are without a Pete Doherty alike stumbling into your path and effing it all up. Oh Shoreditch!

(Don't worry they'll all move over to Hackney Wick(ed) soon...)

Monday, 20 June 2011

when life gives you lemons...

...why not make something lemony?

I have always been a big lemon lady - as a child I apparently used to sit in my high chair happily sucking on raw lemon segments, not a wince or grimace on my chubby cheeks. I do remember sneaking to the fridge when I was little and sneakily dipping the tip of my tongue in the lid of the concentrate lemon juice bottle for that little frisson of flavour. Naughty! I love my pancakes absolutely doused in limone juice with the merest sprinkle of sugar, a tarter than tart lemon meringue pie and French citron pressé made up of more citron than, erm, pressé....
A colleague of mine, who goes by the last name Lemon, had a birthday and I decided to bake some lemon cupcakes to honour the occasion.
To make, I creamed butter with sugar and grated lemon zest, then folded in 2 beaten eggs with flour and baking powder. Popped in the oven at 180C, for about 10 mins so they're not too solid, the mixture made around twelve cupcakes.

ready to rock
To add a bit of pizazz once the cupcakes came out of the oven, i cut the tops off, spooned in a dollop of lemon curd, then replaced the tops before icing with lemon butter (cream butter, icing sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice together into a spreadable consistency). I then sprinkled the cupcakes with a touch of silver edible glitter, along with those little lemon jelly slices (so retro) to stick on top of the cakes for added citrus impact. On the birthday boys cupcake I added his initials in chocolate along with a yellow candle, and finally just before serving I topped all the cakes with little flags with his face on them (complete with evil curly moustache doodled on...comedy value)
tops off

icing on

just lemon

I also wanted to make a jelly lemon lake but unfortunately ran out of time... To make fizzy jelly, you just dissolve jelly in 150ml hot water, and then add 420ml cold lemonade instead of cold water. Ramp it up for adults by adding champagne or sparkling wine into the mix instead of the lemonade... Pour the jelly mixtures into a suitable mould (rude ones if possible), for a refreshing fruity sweet with a fizz!
Lemony good.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

tapas me up!

I've always been a fan of little plates; tasty tidbits over a hefty dish. There's something about all the flavours and textures mingling together but still remaining very separate that makes dinner a more interesting (and often lengthier) experience. My preference has always been Greek or Lebanese mezze - delicious squid, chicken, lamb morsels, chickpeas, spinach and feta filo parcels, grilled halloumi cheese, falafel with sides of homemade houmous, tzatziki, couscous salad and olivieh. I discovered this beauty when I was seventeen and working in a middle Eastern restaurant. An ancient Persian dip/potato salady thing made with chicken, garlic, mayonnaise, potato, egg and olive oil. Sounds a bit dodgy, but honestly the most tasty, moreish thing and freshly made daily by the owner's wife, I used to stuff quantities down with grilled pitta - being a slip of thing at the time, I could afford to make that my started and follow up with freebie butterflied prawns or swordfish. A jammy job indeed.

Tapas has always been something I have avoided in favour of mezze - because I adore Greek food so much, I will always go for the Hellenic option. However a recent trip to Nerja, Spain with my good friend Emily, meant tapas were due to be the order of the day - and I am now a tapas fan!
According to legend (and Wikipedia) the tapas tradition began when King Alfonso X of Castile recovered from an illness by drinking wine with small dishes between meals. After regaining his health, the king ordered that taverns would not be allowed to serve wine to customers unless it was accompanied by a small snack or "tapa." Most Spanish bars/restaurants charge for tapas, meaning people tend to order a whole selection for a sitdown meal, which isn't really in the tapas spirit. The serving of tapas is designed to encourage conversation - people aren't so focused upon eating an entire meal that is set before them, and it's much easier to move around with your one little plate and drink, and chat to people.
However luckily for us, in certain areas of southern Spain (including Nerja!), free tapa is still offered with a drink at the bar. Wahoo! We completed a few tapas tours of the town, bar hopping and ordering a drink in each. House specials such as beer, wine, or our fave tinto de verano (lovely, refreshing drink of red wine & lemonade) are just €1.60 each, with which you pick a complimentary tapa. Then it's munch, slurp, chat and onto the next. It was a fantastic way to not only see the city, but meet different people, try a variety of tapas and get nicely tipsy (and full) on the cheap. We put in 10 euros at the start of the night and that lasted us across 6 tapas bars - under a tenner for all your food and drink! Unheard of. It's worth remembering if you're planning on visiting Spain, as if I hadn't known and was offered tapas with my drink I would have turned it down, not realising it was free! It's also a bit intimidating for tourists I imagine, as you have to sit at the bar to qualify (and most of us would gravitate to a table would we not?). Also the tapas are all under a covered glass window on top of the bar (usually around 10-12 different options), unlabelled - so if you are unfamiliar with tapas, or don't have a translator, you might be unable to identify the offering. Like all restaurants, there is bound to be a variety in quality - some establishments freshly cook the tapas, some microwave it etc. Get locals to recommend you the best tapas bars (although they will be biased!)
 However it's worth just going for it as everything I tasted was delish!

Some of my personal favourites were albóndigas (meatballs in a sauce), paella, croquetas (chicken, potatoey croquettes), bacalao (very thinly sliced and fried pieces of salty garlicky cod), calamari, the Spanish version of eggs & bacon (fried quail egg on bread with pancetta), freshwater prawns, chorizo, ensaladilla rusa (literally means little Russian salad and is made with mixed boiled vegetables with tuna, olives and mayonnaise) and tortilla.
The tapas are often served with crisps, olives, bits of crusty bread, cheesy mash (in one instance!) or alioli for dipping, making it amazing value for money. Next week, The Grub Club, are off to Galicia, Westbourne Park to check out the London tapas scene… watch this space for a review!

In other news, last night I made a chicken and chorizo paella. I used arborio rice, along with mushrooms, peas, pepper, herbs, onion and garlic along with a garnish of flat leaf parsley. It turned out really well, if a bit soggy, and the flavour of the chorizo along with saffron not only gave the paella a beaut golden yellow colour but a delicious meaty, rich taste. You could add squid, prawns, lobster or mussels happily to this recipe, and serve alongside salad with a bit of crusty bread for sauce mopping…. Delicioso!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

totally tayyab's

Tayyab's. A Whitechapel curry house institution, opened in 1974 and still going strong with a loyal and dedicated fan base. In my quest for a decent Indian in London, and buoyed by nothing but rave reviews for this place, it was only fitting that The Grub Club decided on Tayyab's as the spot for our second meeting! Arriving around 7pm on a Wednesday night we beat the infamous queues and were immediately seated. Decor was simple but pleasant, kitchen table not upmarket restaurant. We were immediately given a plate of fresh salad and dips, with fresh poppadums (Charly said they were the best she'd ever tasted!), including an amazing homemade mango chutney. Stainless steel water jugs were on the tables along with those classic Seventies water glasses - we immediately commented on how our mothers both had the same versions at home! The menu was perfect, with a decent amount of starters, meat and veggie dishes and extremely reasonably priced to boot.

We opted for a selection of starters including tasty meat and veg samosas, gorgeous and super spicy lamb seekh and shami kebabs and paneer. We then went for chicken karahi and a baby aubergine dahl, both very fresh and not swimming in sauce. The chicken had a lovely sweet, almost honeyed edge to it and the dahl wasn't sloppy, with good sized pieces of lentil and veg. Pilau rice and an obscene amount of Indian breads completed the dinner. I always get a bit overexcited at the prospect of decent naans, rotis or parathas. That puffy, soft, buttery goodness brings out the fat kid in me and I want it all, all I tell you! Needless to say bread stuffs you and it's a crime to the deliciousness of the food to do so. To be honest if you're having bread, I would recommend getting a single dish of rice for 3/4 people. We left our second one untouched, along with two of the breads (it kills me to say). Go for one bread item per person - they are large and unlike the thin, flimsy style rotis or chapatis in most Indian restaurants or takeaways, they are very thick and puffy, almost like naan breads.



Needless to say, we were absolutely overstuffed at the end of the meal (Charly went up a bra size and I nearly fell over twice on the way home). Couldn't even fit in a kulfi or gulab, tempting as they did look. There is also a big Indian sweets counter in Tayyab's, stocking brightly coloured barfi and my alltime favourite, those sticky syrupy sweet jalebi. Packed full of condensed milk, sugar syrup, ghee and all sorts of highly calorific business, there's still no denying their deliciousness enjoyed alongside a nice cup of tea. They also keep for ages so you can slowly work your way through a box of goodies and make yourself feel slightly less guilty! The bill for everything was a steal at £38.95 for three people, a real rarity in these tough times to get such a good quality, fast and cheap meal in London.

Overall TGC had a highly enjoyable Tayyab's experience with a vote of a very solid 8.75/10. Marks were deducted for slightly too much grease left in the bottom of our dishes, although there was no telltale oil slick on the tops of the dishes when they arrived (as you see in many curry houses) which was a good sign. The poppadums are also on the bill, although served as if free, which is also a pet hate of mine. However these are all minor tings in the scheme of it all and come on, we have to give them some room for improvement...!

It's BYOB so don't forget the booze, and try it out on a weekday evening to avoid the queues. On the way home, we saw the Gherkin rising up into the sky on our left as an old Indian guy played jaunty music on his flute on our right - and were reminded of the melting pot that London really is...

Sunday, 24 April 2011

hot 'n cross

Ahhh Easter. One of my favouritest times of year. Sunshine, bunnies, chocolate, lambs, daffodils, chicks... The scent of Spring and good times to come. Happy memories of Easter egg hunts and the beautiful smell of flowering currant - my Mum would cut branches of the stuff from our front garden and put it in a big vase on the kitchen table with lots of cute painted egg decorations hanging from it, like an Easter-ish Christmas tree! It's something I'll always remember, and this year I'm taking my own branches back from the parents for my own place. Irises are also in bloom around Easter - my all time favourite flowers. I took these photos of irises when I was in France, absolutely gorgeous:

It used to be all about the chocolate eggs for me back in the day - Creme and Mini Eggs winning pole position in the greed stakes. However these days I much prefer the bread and cake based yumminess. I think it's the egg overload I see in the shops in the runup to Easter that well and truly put me off. I just hate the thoughtless, mass produced eggs that line the supermarket shelves (months in advance) with a passion. People bulk buying five for a fiver. Yuk! Hop on the Eurostar and head across the border to France, where you can pick up beautifully sculpted and wrapped, quality chocolate treats for hardly anything. Check my last post for a glimpse of the beauty within those chocolateries. Or failing that, pick and choose your Easter goodies carefully from quality purveyors - I just think if you're going to buy an egg for someone it should be something special, not something tossed into the trolley last min. However, this doesn't mean splashing out on a £45 affair from Claridge's. That to me is totally obscene. For that amount I would rather have a nice Diptyque vanilla candle or a Philosophy gift set plus a bag of Mini Eggs! You shouldn't need to spend much to get a decent chocolate egg or figurine - Hotel Chocolat or even M&S and Waitrose usually stock other more unusual treats which are so much nicer to receive than an ugly KitKat Chunky monstrosity sitting scowling in it's muggy mug...
I love Easter treats like homemade Simnel cake, or saffron Easter battenburg. This year I made hot cross buns - I just chucked mixed spice, lemon zest, mixed currants, sultanas and raisins together with strong white bread flour, a bit of yeast, butter, an egg and tepid milk. It came together very easily into a lovely dough, and I then worked in the mixed fruit. The only time consuming part was the proving (rising) which took around 2 hours in 3 stages. The dough went in my airing cupboard for 30 mins, I then knocked it back (punched it to disperse the air bubbles inside) and returned to le cupboard for another 40 mins, divided into 12 buns and back in the airer for a final 40 mins.

 I piped the crosses on with an icing bag using a paste of flour and water. Tip: make this paste about the consistency of icing and leave it to set on the buns slightly before putting them in the oven to bake, or else the crosses run out as the bread warms up.
The lil hot cross buns turned out beautifully, more substantial than supermarket ones, and with a light golden syrup glaze they looked very pretty too. Result! Maybe next time I'll try adding in cranberries or different fruits to give a twist on the original...

And I'm so lucky, I even have my own Easter lamb - here he is, wolf in sheep's clothing?! Cute.

Monday, 18 April 2011

lyon love

I spent a sublimely sunny weekend in Lyon - the gastronome's capital of France. A blissful few days of good food, wine and lazy amblings up and down winding cobbled streets and along the banks of the two rivers which run through the city.
Lyon is an amazing weekend destination. Great bistros and brasseries, lively squares, good shopping and a 
beautifully landscaped park with botanical gardens, woods, a zoo and a lake in the middle where you can go boating and fishing. We went up to Fourvière, a district of Lyon located at the top of a steep hill reached by funicular, where you can take a look at the Basilica and breathtaking Roman ruins of an amphitheatre. Historically Lyon is a silk town, and the Croix-Rousse area (also on a hill!) is where the silk workers lived. Again, steep climbs through little alleyways but the view from the top across Lyon is phenomenal...
place bellecour

streets of croix-rousse
lions of lyon
Enough of the tourist office stuff - the main thing I want to lust over is the food. We made an effort to try the Lyon specialities while we were there, and kicked off our first lunch with a chilled glass of wine in the sun and some chilled brains… No, honestly. One of the region's dishes is cervelle de canut (literally translated as silk-weaver's brains) which is in fact, a yummy type of mild cottage cheese (but lighter and more whipped up) seasoned with herbs and shallots and served with toasted bread. According to Wikipedia, it's name is thought to reflect the low opinion the affluent in Lyon had of the weavers. Charmant. They did do good cheese though. Salade lyonnaise is a light traditional salad with frisee lettuce, bacon, croutons, a poached egg, and Dijon vinaigrette. All the flavours mixed together wonderfully, with the crunchy croutons giving added bite.

To spoil our sweet tooths we chose praline based desserts - a tarte aux pralines with chantilly cream and pain perdu with pralines. Pralines in Lyon are ground nuts mixed with sugar and dyed pink (not sure why), to create super sweet crystals. These are added to brioche, cakes, tartes and various other food stuffs to create sweet treats with a vivid pink or red colouring. It took us ages to work out what the pralines actually were, as they taste kind of fruity. The cream and vanilla icecream were essential accompaniments to offset the sweetness.
pain perdu & tarte
In the run up to Easter the chocolateries of Lyon were amply stuffed full of gorgeous chocolate eggs, chickens, bunnies, fish and all other manner of creatures good enough to eat. In one of the top chocolate shops, Voisin, we discovered the striking coussin de Lyon - vivid blue-green marzipan cushion shaped sweets, filled with a chocolate ganache flavoured with curacao. Back in the day, the aldermen of Lyon walked up the hill to Fourvière to implore the Virgin to save the city from the plague. They carried a seven-pound candle of wax and a gold crown on a silk cushion. This gave the chocolatier Voisin the idea of using the shape of the cushion to create the coussin de Lyon in 1960. It's since become one of the city symbols, and you can buy cushion shaped boxes of them everywhere. They look quite lurid, but are very moreish. Check out my fluoro pink nails against the aqua blue - colour blocking? Very à la mode…!


colour blocking
We ate at the fantastic Leon de Lyon brasserie on Saturday night. Cosy and quiet, a bit stuffy in the old school French way, with smart service, dusky low lighting and oil paintings on the walls. A quality establishment run by top chef Jean-Paul Lacombe, we opted for the three course menu for 30 euros a head. A very reasonable price for a delicious dinner. We chose the pea soup with rabbit toast and sardine rillette to start, followed by filet du canard with mushroom potatoes and baked salmon with vegetables. Rich chocolat fondant and a wonderfully tart rhubarb, apple and pear crumble pie rounded off everything nicely. The only bum note was my bitter camomile tea which tasted like a cross between dishwater and oil and prompted a giggling fit at how terribly bad it was - too many flower heads in the pot? Who knows but we'll let it slide…
All in all, Lyon is food paradise. Don't miss the
Sunday morning food market on the banks of the river. Full to bursting with fresh fruit, veg, flowers, bread, cakes, meats and seafood I could happily have spent hours wandering up and down, absorbing the smells and sounds (and free tasters). A perfect Sunday afternoon could be spent in the park devouring your crusty baguettes with fresh goats cheese, roast chicken and juicy strawberries from the market. Along with a bottle of Beaujolais of course. It's regional innit. I also discovered this pastry thing in a patisserie - yes it's called William Tell. But what the devil is it?! I'm intrigued. Answers on a postcard please!

Monday, 11 April 2011


Ahhh the art of la pique-nique. Lazy days in the park, gals giggling over fizzy wine, doing the crossword, rolling around in the grass with a playmate, people watching (I mean people-watching not people watching you doing the rolling - avoid prime dogging spots at all costs), daisy chains, floaty summer dresses, that warm fug that rises off the grass. Lovely long afternoons in the sun, chillaxing, drinking, eating - what could be more blissful? As soon as the sun gets his chapeau on and promises a weekend of rays I'm straight into picnic gear, digging out the blanket, cushions, napkins and planning the hamper contents.
As a bona fide piglette I have a propensity to over indulge with picnics, as with everything, and stuff my hamper to busting point with various treats and nibbles. My reasoning for this is not only that I'm indecisive and want a bit of pretty much everything, but also that once ensconced in the safety of my chosen grassy knoll I really don't want to have to leave. Ever. This year however I am vowing to stop this wild abundance, as my eyes are almost always bigger than my belly, and I end up either carting half the goods back home/binning them/feeding them to the local wildlife. It's all about quality over quantity. Cherry picking your favourite picnic pieces with care - comfort food with a gourmet twist. A way to make a memorable picnic.

hampstead hamper
the heath
I feel a person's picnic choice speaks volumes about their character... I can spot a soggy pre-packed egg & cress from fifty paces, and trus' me, I won't be much impressed! Fair enough, not everyone has the time to whip up a homemade tart or quiche from scratch, but picnic food should essentially be simple food, and there's simply no excuse for skimping people.
This summer I'll be going easy and packing my hamper with a good rustic baguette, a small pat of butter, some pre-prepped salad leaves including cucumber, onion and tomato slices, a bottle of organic apple juice and some fizzy wine. Then hitting up the local deli counter for some yummy olives, and a selection of (reasonably sized) cheeses, pate and sliced meats including parma ham and chorizo. Add to the mix a bag of posh crisps, a dip (houmous/tzatziki/salsa are winners) and some fresh fruit in the strawberry and grape area and there you have it. Simple yet effective fayre for two or three people. To up the ante for more of a crowd I would include some kind of cous cous salad, a potato salad, some homemade flapjacks or rocky road.

Picnic-wise I always find you should put the emphasis on the savoury not the sweet. By the time I get round to the 'dessert' course the scotch eggs and sausage rolls have taken their toll, and I can usually only pick pathetically at the edge of a brownie. Picnics are for breads, meats and cheeses. Leave the sweet stuff for afternoon tea. A delicate mille feuille or even a more hardy muffin are for me best enjoyed with a cup of tea, preferably at a prettily adorned table.

Be aware of prime picnic pitfalls:
Pittas/bagels - any type of bread that is better toasted, please abandon ship and go for crusty bread/crackers/oatcakes or a decent loaf sliced at home instead.
Dips - don’t overbuy, they're nice when cool but as soon as they start to turn they lose their deliciousness.
Don’t underestimate your garnishes - a twist of black pepper, a sprinkle of sea salt, some fresh herbs on your salad or in your sandwich. These will add extra colour and taste and give your picnic staples the edge.
Pack well - nothing worse than squashed sandwiches, crumbled cakes and bruised bananas. Instead go hardy - chunky bread, dense brownies and flapjacks, wedges of clingfilmed Spanish tortilla. These will withstand carriage well.
Take copious amounts of napkins and don't forget the cutlery and cups!
And most of all smile and enjoy! We should be proud of our British picnics. Our Brit-nics if you will. The last great bastion of summer Englishness.

So what do you ppppput in your picnic? I'd love to know - I promise you won't be judged (much!)

Monday, 4 April 2011

i'm at the gate!

In an effort to eat under the guise of 'research' I headed to The Gate, a vegetarian restaurant in Hammersmith, with some of my Good Food channel workmates. Located on a quiet residential street a few minutes walk from the Apollo, through an iron gate (what else), the restaurant is well secluded and tranquil. A spacious, light and airy dining room, wooden tables and chairs, and high ceilings (one side completely glass) gives The Gate a modern, informal feel. As we were dining early evening we had lots of natural light coming in, but as we left waiting staff lit nightlights on every table which I imagine would give it a friendly, cosy glow.
After ordering a bottle of lovely but slightly overpriced house white, we skipped straight to the main courses. A good selection was offered including tortillas, aubergine teriyaki and 'pasta of the day' (gluten-free option available!) I chose the rotolo - butternut, goats cheese and basil rolled in thyme-infused potatoes, served on bed of french beans. A deliciously rich and creamy dish, just the right size and with a flourish of crispy deep fried leeks which gave a great crunch with the soft layers of the rotolo. A green peppercorn and creamy mustard sauce was also a good addition, if a bit heavy on the mustard.


Lakshmi's risotto alla contadina, made with fava beans, peas, asparagus, courgettes and wild garlic looked like a real spring dish. Vivid green colour, enough liquid to avoid being too stodgy and a light, fresh flavour with the addition of mint and lemon.

Charly's winter veg and chickpea tagine of chunky carrot, celeriac, sweet pot, parsnip, fennel and dates was generally good but there were a couple of points of criticism... She couldn't taste the pickled lemon and the pomegranate, herb and bulgur salad served alongside, could have done with being replaced with softer, more absorbent couscous… Charly is a food writer (check her fantastic blog here) and has a very sophisticated palate so we can trust her on this one!
Thoroughly full I'm afraid we wimped out and swerved the desserts, which included a yummy sounding frangipane and pear tart, pineapple and chilli crumble and chocolate marquise.
Overall I reckon I'd rate The Gate a nice and decent 7/10. The menu although good, could have been a bit more imaginative. We were also nearing overpriced out territory with mains at the £13 - £16 mark. I may be out of line in saying this, but I understand paying more for an expensive cut of meat or piece of fish, but when something is predominantly veggies it seems a bit like the customer is paying for the 'novelty' of eating at a veggie restaurant. Vegetarian restaurants traditionally rely on cheesy, creamy, rich dishes - which are usually scrumptious. But it's always good to have some innovative flourishes popping up to waken the tastebuds and offer something really different to pull the punters back again. I'm thinking of Terre a Terre's vodka-spiked tomatoes or Vanilla Black's Marmite glazed almonds... With touches like that, I'm prepared to pay more for the taste sensation. However The Gate are currently running a £10 for 2 courses lunch menu, which could be the answer for the budget concious vegetarians in these credit carrot crunching times...

Monday, 28 March 2011

speakeasy @ spuntino

Last week I jumped on the bandwagon and dined at Spuntino in Soho - the new 'small plates' restaurant from Russell Norman and Richard Beatty, the men behind the much lauded Italian cicheti restaurants Polpo and Polpetto. Rather than Venetian cuisine, Spuntino instead focuses on diner style minis with a twist. Not one for the calorie conscious but brilliant fun, reasonably priced and well worth a visit...

Conceived in NY Speakeasy style - just check out their minimal website here -  Spuntino glints behind a plain black unmarked front, nestling between the seedy sex shops and neon lights of Soho. Inside is done up in diner-esque style, with filament bulb lamps, plain tumbler glasses, a popcorn machine, 20s music and tattooed, slightly grimy but lovely staff. Candles, close seating and low lighting give it a great cosy feel. Like it's Italian sisters, you can't book (can't even call mate) and there are likely to be queues at normal dining hours. With this in mind, I arrived there at 5.30pm and walked straight in... Luckily I work just round the corner so this wasn't an issue, but I would suggest getting there well off-peak in order to avoid waiting. If Spuntino is anything like Polpo the queues aren't going to die down for some considerable time... especially as there are only around 30 seats in the place, all located around a 3 sided bar.

truffled egg toast
P & J goodness
Food wise Spuntino well deserves the positive reviews it's been garnering from all corners. We enjoyed the truffled egg toast, a rich and cheesy delight, a small but perfectly formed slider (mini burger) with salt beef and pickles, as well as a zucchini pizzetta and cheese grits. I'd never had grits before and was surprised at how smooth they were - a hearty taste of the Deep South indeed! The squid with chickpeas and inky sauce was slightly lacking in flavour, but a good addition to the menu. They had also to our dismay, run out of the lightly battered egg and soldiers (after seeing pictures online, our main reason for visiting the establishment in the first place!) so we may have to organise a repeat visit for this reason only... The food is pretty heavy and filling, so dessert of a naughty peanut butter and jelly sandwich creation with flaked nuts on top, and a boozy chocolate brownie, absolutely did us over. All small plates range from around £4 to £7 so if sharing, are easily affordable. Wine is a tad overpriced here, and we opted for the more affordable pale ale/vodka + tonic options.

Seeing off a few of these babies, the bright XXX light called us, and staggering out onto the streets of Soho an evening of hilarity ensued, including a thorough investigation of the local sex shops, playing hunt the merkin (no shops seem to stock them - what's with that?!) and the discovery of Cox Cookies & Cake - a real gem of a place if you like your filthy cakes!