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...