Tuesday 17 September 2013


A change is as good as a rest. A splendid Septembre weekend in the Languedoc-Roussillon was just the tonic to relax and refresh.

Everbody knows how much I love the French - I won't bang on about it too much (again) but for more blog posts on my precious frog jaunts please see ici and ici. It had been a while since I'd set foot on Gallic soil, so nabbing a pair of cheap Easyjet flights and a quirky apartment through airbnb (total cost for two - £300!), I was all set for a long weekend of Frenching to the max in beautiful Montpellier.

It's the perfect small city to explore over a weekend, and seems to have it all - the old, winding cobbled streets, hidden away squares, petites boutiques, churches and museums of the old town, the bigger shopping malls and gleaming modern architecture of the Antigone district and cute beaches and clear waters a short tram or taxi ride away.

place de la comedie

It was the first time I'd used airbnb for accommodation, and we had a great experience. Cheaper than a hotel, yet more characterful, easy and authentic. Our fourth floor apartment (high ceilings, balcons, arty touches, très français) was tucked away between a boulangerie and a chocolaterie, right in the heart of the old town. There's nothing more heartening than throwing open the shutters, gazing out on blue skies and then sitting down to a proper petit déj laid on by invisible breakfast fairies...

great start
For lunch we ate some delightful crêpes at Le Phare Saint Roch, a cheap and cheerful café a short walk from our apart. I have come to understand that crêpes to the French, are a bit like toasties to les Anglais. In other words, uneventful, boring and safe. Crêpes are not haute cuisine, they are not even midi cuisine. They are just: crêpes. But they are amazing! You fools, you don't even know you're born.
Is there anything more tasty for lunch, than a chilled bottle of crisp cidre and a savoury galette, filled with melty cheese, ham, mushrooms, a perfectly cooked egg atop and a grind of black pepper? Doubt it. Needless to say, there's always room for a sweet one, and if it's not the traditional Nutella Banane then it's got to be La belle Hélène (pear, dark chocolate sauce and whipped cream) for me. After some horrendous crap crepe affairs in the UK, and at festivals, I tend to avoid eating them unless in France - however there is one good crêperie I can recommend in Kensington called Cremerie which makes up in food what it lacks in interior design.

cidre et crepes
Palavas-les-Flots is one of the closest beaches to Montpellier, and although not the most beautiful, has everything you could wish for an afternoon of sun soaking, wining and dining. The sea runs into a river which splits Palavas in two down the middle, and cafes and bars line both sides. You can do one side, then take a chair lift over the river and do the other, eating and drinking as you go.

This close to the sea, it had to be seafood. The giant platter of lobster and varied shelled beasts was tempting but in the end we had to settle for the classique, a kilo of moules frites, with a nice white at La Passerelle. We had seats right by the riverside, and noticed a viewing stand opposite slowly filling with a small crowd of people. Then the music started up and a dude on a loudspeaker announcing the 'ecole des joutes' (jousting school) competition was about to begin. Cue a hilarious hour of jousters with shields and poles, balancing on the end of a giant platform on two boats, trying to knock each other off - some very close calls were had! Apparently, it's a regular summer occurrence around this time of year, and certainly made for entertaining dinner viewing. Bear in mind that getting back to Montpellier from Palavas in the evening is a bit tricky, as the last bus to the tramstop is at 19.30. Obviously we missed the bus, but found a very accommodating eighty year old Frenchman, stripey top, neckerchief, covered in tatts, in a convertible - who drove us there no problem.


moules frites

There are plenty of top notch places to eat in Montpellier, but two of note deserve a mention here.
Tamarillos, a restaurant by Philippe Chapon, has an original menu themed around fruits and flowers. Visually exciting, with a range of tasting menus, tapas and unusual salads piled high with edible colourful flowers. In an effort to counteract all the calorie laden cheese and wine, we wanted to go down the salad route (but avoid the goats cheese and lardons) and plumped for the fresh crab and avocado salad with poppies and the smoked salmon, lemon and nasturtium concoction. They also do a range of vivid juices, freshly blended - the strawberry was particularly nice.

saumon fume

crabe avocat
On our last night we wanted a good, simple but effective feast, and a local recommended we dine at La Place. Tucked away in a secretive square, with tables outside next to a burbling fountain, we had a lipsmacking and very reasonable two courser for 22 euros. Lamb cutlets and steak frites cooked to perfection, followed by a tarte aux pommes and a mini cheese selection, with star fromage performer a local Tomme.

piece of meat
Gluttons for punishment, we couldn't return home empty handed, and stocked up on some pretty biscuits and chocolates for friends and family from Leonidas before leaving. Of course, this turned into a late night chocolate testing session (read: binge). Needless to say, they all rated a minimum of a respectable neuf sur dix... the coconut cream and the blanc bouche were divine.

As it turned out, my Montpellier sojourn was also a celebration of the end of the sunny summer, as I took off from London in a heatwave and touched back down in autumnal England to grey clouds, rain and a 15 degree temperature drop.
I really couldn't feel too gloomy about it though given the long sultry months we've had this year, and a last blast of South of France heat and hospitality will hopefully see me through the next three months and my next hot holiday in December...

Monday 2 September 2013

hoxton heroes

A glut of new and improved Hoxton eateries have made my local neighbourhood a real treat to trough in – and as a piglet, I feel pretty blessed that I can get any kind of truffles I fancy, at a decent price, right on my doorstep.

I’m talking about Hoxton Street in particular, where in the past year some fantastic new café style eateries have popped up, properly interspersed with the local butchers, bakers, greengrocers and candlestick makers along the road, helping the street retain its edge and character. It all feels very friendly and very approachable. Moving away from the overstyled Shoreditch and City hotspots, and the too cool for school Dalston dive bars, Hoxton St is genuinely always a real pleasure to stroll along at the weekend, or chill outside on a pavement table on a balmy summer eve. It’s also the home of the free Shoreditch Festival, this year (the twelfth) a sunny weekend of music, street entertainers and double the amount of vendors as usual.

I have whittled it down to eight of my favourite Hoxton St. hotspots, starting at the bottom end towards Hoxton Sq. and walking up towards Dalston… if you haven’t yet visited - go go go! And let me know if you enjoyed any of these little delights:

Monikers – 16 Hoxton Square

I was going to skip over Hoxton Sq altogether, as it’s not technically on Hoxton St, but I couldn’t pass up a mention about one of my all time favourite E. London joints – the fabulous Monikers. In my humble opinion, the only place really worth eating at on Hoxton Sq. Sublime seasonal food, unique venue (in an old, converted school - blackboards on the wall, cocktails in glass milk bottles, double decker bus inside…!), relaxed yet refined vibes and some of the friendliest staff known to man. When I go to eat at Monikers, I know I’ll probably end up staying all night, going OTT on the cocktails, graffiti-ing the top deck of the bus and wobbling home in an undignified manner - but hell it’s my local! Hallelujah.

Open Kitchen – 40 Hoxton St

An unassuming, informal restaurant where trainee chefs for the London City Hospitality Centre cook and serve yummy meals at reasonable prices - you could easily pay just £20 for a three course meal with wine. The food is good, simple and sometimes a bit retro in presentation, but it's a great midweek option. Open 5-9pm Wed-Friday, I believe you need to book in advance. They also have a Loyalty Card scheme running: one stamp for every tenner spent, and 10 stamps = £20 off a meal or a free Evening Cookery Class. Bing!

Every Saturday, 9am-4pm (although I’d recommend swinging by closer to 11am if you want all the lazy traders to be up and about). HSM is a relatively new addition to the local scene, and as such is still growing – so don’t expect the breadth and variety (or hecticness) of Broadway. However it’s a great local gem, and is only going to get better. Read more about it here.
I regularly head there on a Saturday morning to get fresh eggs from the egg man (the first time you buy eggs he’ll write that price on the box, and you just keep bringing the box back to get more at the same fixed price - £1.40 for 6 pour moi), fantastic sourdough or spelt fresh loaves from  the fantastic Hoxton Bakery and other nibbly bits to munch on over the course of the weekend. At the last count I spotted, amongst others, churros, cakes, pinxos, foie gras, a Korean BBQ, the Caribbean van, a gnocchi man, a halloumi man and a coconut lady. After the food stalls and some vintage and artisan jewellery traders, come the more traditional cheap as chips marketeers and Hackney locals selling and bargaining over flowers, fruit, clothes and other bits and bobs. You’ll quickly realise you really do need 5 tubes of toothpaste for 3 pahnds mark my words.

Café Olive – 120 Hoxton St

A small and sweet little café,  run by fun guys, please don’t pass this one by – they churn out amazing and cheap pizzas, beaut homemade cakes and biscuits and delicious coffee. It’s warm and cosy inside on a cold evening, or you can grab an outside table and watch the world go by. Or take a couple of pizzas to go, and avoid the countless cheap & nasty takeaways that litter Hoxton! I got quite irritated when the boring Barrel Boulangerie opened up next door, also flogging pizzas. Don’t go there – go to Olive 

Hoxton Fruit & Veg – 183 Hoxton St

As a rule, I try not to buy any of my fruit and veg from supermarkets. It’s all bland, overpriced and been sat in cold storage for years. Why would you? Hoxton has tons of small shops that sell fresh goods, but this is the big daddy of them all. Look for the green and white striped awning. Huge range, good value, and you can get 4 packs of pitta breads for £1.20. What’s not to love?

 Meat in Hoxton – 193 Hoxton St

See above. Meat pumped full of fats, water, shredded cow’s vaginas etc, lying under Tesco’s strip lights… Hmmm. Better to buy from a friendly local butcher, rarer than hen’s teeth nowadays I will grant you. But this small but perfectly formed halal butchery does great meat, and it’s affordable. I recently got 3 absolutely huge chicken breasts, for £3.50 from these dudes.
F. Cooke's Pie and Mash – 150 Hoxton St

Not to be confused with A. Cooke’s of Goldhawk Road fame, but just as good. What could be more Landan trad than a nice big pie with creamy mash and a lagoon of liquor. Hell, why not take a pie or two to go and eat it in Shoreditch Park, a mere 10 minute stroll away...

 The Ginger Pig Café – 231 Hoxton St

This bad boy packs a meaty punch – mouthwatering, giant steaks, big and brassy brunches, no skimping, no shirking. This is the real deal. Come here for a right good feed and a chilled ambiance. It’s a great place to bed-in on a hangover, and you won’t get the hordes that plague other spots further down into Shoreditch. They make a mean liqueur coffee too. Hoping this one doesn’t get too popular too quickly if I’m honest as I’d like to keep it all to myself…

And beyond…

Also worth a nod, are gastropub Bacchus at number 177 (Hoxton St’s classiest addition, if a tad overpriced) and the new 100 Hoxton (at number 100 funnily), by the team behind Zilouf’s in Islington. The White Horse pub (number 153) also appears to have closed down and is bound to reopen with a bang under some guise sooner rather than later… keep your eyes trained on The Street innit.

For a full rundown of all of the local amenities head to Real Hoxton's website.

Sunday 9 June 2013

blue door thinking

Supperclubs are ten a penny these days - springing up all over the capital and further afield, it can be quite a mind boggling task sorting the wheat from the chaff. Whole websites and forums are now dedicated to the discovery of the next host with the most or fusion chef with 'personality' (read: ego), often wanting to peddle their less than amazing wares for an overinflated price, whilst quaffing your more than decent BYOB. It's a real balancing act finding a good venue, with good food, at a good price and with good people - and with the average price of a supperclub spot at around the £35-£40 mark (sans booze) I've tended to err on the side of caution rather than fork out just to be disappointed.

With this in mind, it was with slight trepidation that I booked a spot for myself and a friend at The Pale Blue Door, a Dalston based supperclub situated at set designer Tony Hornecker's gaff. I had been meaning to pay TPBD a visit for a year or so, and the time finally felt ripe for a slice of local dining with a difference. Would it come up trumps? A brief googlewhack revealed some past happy customers, and without digging too deep for fear of spoiling any surprises, we signed ourselves up for supper.

The night began with pre dinner cocktails at one of my favourite Shoreditch spots, on Great Eastern St, the gloriously girly and kitsch boudoir bar Ninety Eight. Spirited away down a spiral staircase, it's a blink and you'll miss it Parisian drinking den, which I only spotted one night by chance as I caught sight of some candles glimmering up through the gloom underfoot. Awash with fur, sparkles, quirky portraits and objets, this place is a real visual feast (and the cocktails aren't bad either). We plumped for green tea cheesecake in a jamjar affair, and a strawberry and coffee bean extravaganza - both full of flavour, unique and not badly priced. This spot is really one for the girls, but if you fancy being thoroughly emasculated then step inside, I am sure you'll just love it mon cher.

Cocktails quaffed it was time to head to deepest darkest Dalston (well, near Middleton Road) and find the elusive pale blue door...

Yep that's it. Tucked down a long alleyway of warehouse spaces, a ramshackle sort of workshop, with a decrepit looking campervan parked out front and a load of old tyres and a soiled dressing gown hanging from the rafters. YUM! Not to be defeated, we pushed on through to walk into an Aladdin's cave of well worn theatre props and warm candelight. Phew - things were looking up. Shown to our table for two (a godsend for those who like suppeclubs but don't like the idea of getting stuck between two oddballs for the duration) we ignored the slightly musty aroma and had a good ogle at all the weird shit. I turned round to come face to face with a mannequin in a sequinned Smurf's hat and had to throw my jacket over it's head but apart from that all was good.

Rowena a table
Hornecker's home is a real eyeful - he has built up quite a collection of costumes, masks, stuffed things and theatrical paraphernalia over the years. Everything is a bit ragged round the edges - we touched the mismatched cutlery and dogeared napkins gingerly, but it all adds to the edge and the feeling that this is really someone's lived in abode. The precarious stairs (made of chairs) up to his sleeping quarters were thankfully off limits, with a sign reading 'NO ENTRY - DEAD DOG'. Nice.

the stairway to hell

After about twenty-five people were seated, a weird crackly record began to play and a Latino love god(ess) came stomping through to welcome us all in a chicken outfit. Random. Introduced to our host for the evening, glamourous drag queen A Man To Pet, we were treated to a fresh ceviche vegetable starter and some decent red wine. Hornecker himself didn't show up, but we were regaled with a song and a dance from this dudette between each course, getting more and more dramatic and outlandish as the night progressed. The main was a fairly good lamb stuffed with ricotta accompanied with quinoa and dessert was a fresh berry Eton mess. Portions were adequate (just) and the food was simply done, but the atmosphere was fun, warm and friendly and if you haven't seen a drag queen in a gold leotard, cape and a bird's mask getting hoisted to the ceiling on a pulley while flapping away to a Seventies soundtrack then quite frankly where have you been hiding?

By the end of the night, everybody was up on their feet and dancing, as A Man To Pet whirled around in a mankini and six boobs (don't ask).

At £40 for a three course meal, half a bottle of vino each and fun frolics from a class (drag) act you can't really go wrong with The Pale Blue Door for some midweek merriment. Just give your hands a good scrub when you leave.

Sunday 5 May 2013

spanortuguese sunday

Wow, it's been nearly 365 days since I last blogged.
Let's gloss over how scary that is, tempus fugit etc. and instead concentrate on whatever could have been so inspiring as to take me away from my uber busy life and put fingers to keys and talk about FOOD once more.
A sunny bank holiday lunch full of delicious Spanish paella and Portuguese pasteis that's what.
A visit to a village to see some good friends of ours (Spanish Valencians no less) was the perfect moment to finally perfect my paella making skills. For too long now I have blundered about with risotto rice (shock!) and chorizo (horror!) making some sort of weird hybrid version of the devil's paella when in fact, I should just have been listening to it talk to me all along... Let me elaborate.

Angel showed me how to make a traditional chicken paella from scratch, using his special big cast iron paella pan and a massive gas canister - not for the faint hearted. He started by frying a whole chicken cut into pieces in olive oil, and then added some paprika and a tin of chopped tomatoes. (Usually rabbit is added for depth of flavour but the meat is pretty hard to find in the UK - plus mum doesn't like eating bunnies). Broad beans cut into pieces and butter beans which had been soaked overnight completed the base of the paella. Super simple - no fresh tomatoes, no onion and garlic base, no mushrooms, NO CHORIZO! This is a huge faux pas - never add chorizo to paella as the flavour tends to dominate everything else in the dish. Pour in 3 litres of water, add some saffron and salt crushed together with a pestle and mortar and simmer for 45 mins.
In the meantime while you wait for the paella to turn from a liquidy soup into a thick hearty broth, why not drink an icy beer in the garden, nibble on some jamon, manchego and olives, or maybe try some of a freshly baked hojaldre (pastry) filled with cheese, bacon and dates. The dates complement the savouryness like caramelised onion chutney works with a sharp cheddar, and the flaky pastry wraps it all up beautifully. It is a bank holiday weekend after all. 
Back to the paella pot, and its time to add in some medium short grain rice. Risotto rice is just too sticky - you need something firm enough to soak up all the liquid while still staying loose in the dish. Once the rice is added, mix well and LEAVE WELL ALONE for another 20 mins. Another paella myth (and one I was perpetuating) is that, like a risotto, you need to stir like a wild thing constantly until the thing's cooked. No! Just leave the rice to soak up all the liquid and use the heat to speed up or slow the process by turning up or down. No spoon action needed.
Only a true paella pro like Angel would know when the dish is ready to be served - no digging in with fingers, testing grains of rice etc. The trick is to listen. You can hear the sound of the paella change, from a more liquid bubbling to a gentle snap and crackle of the edges of the rice crisping and frying. This means the paella is done and dusted, and after resting it for 5 minutes, it's ready to serve in all it's glory with a few slices of charred fried red peppers on top and a chilled glass of white wine on the side. Mmmm mmm mmm.

Spanish sundays, all the S's, as a palette cleanser before I took over the reins on dessert, we had some divine strawberry specials, super light and dreamy, made with whipped egg whites, and pureed strawbs with icing sugar. Best described as little clouds of summer and could definitely be recipe riffed by adding pureed mango or other fruits instead of strawberries.

My turn to teach, as for pudding I cracked on with pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tarts), eyecatching buttercup yellow wibbly wobbly centres. Boil 250g golden caster sugar (don't use brown sugar as it will turn your custard muddy in colour) in 125ml water, with two cinnamon sticks and two lemon slices for around ten minutes so the flavours infuse nicely. In a separate pot, whisk 30g plain flour with 20g cornflour and a few drops of vanilla essence, with a dash of milk to make a sticky paste (think glue).
To this, keep whisking in 250ml of cold milk until you have a thick mixture. The key is to add very small amounts in slowly so no lumps occur. Add in the sugary water (with the slices and sticks removed obvi) and 3 beaten egg yolks plus one whole egg. Stir away until you get a gorgeous unctuous yummy custard.

Using a deep muffin tray, grease the tins and cut out puff pastry rounds. Pretty Rosario in her flamenco apron, did a sterling job of holding the tray still while we filled the pastry cases with the nata and then popped in the oven for 20 mins at 220C. Lovely tarts for all, crisp flaky buttery casing deep filled with a full flavoured custard - extra delicious cold the next day too. Dust with cinnamon or nutmeg for an extra flavour hit. I also want to experiment with a dollop of caramel or chocolate in the bottom of each tart with a heart... watch this espacio.