Vive La Cheese: La Fromagerie

At a recent Vive Le Cheese event we tasted both French cheeses and the concepts of bien vivre – or how to live well.  For me, as for many of the people who’d call themselves “foodie”, I suspect, quality of living and food are inextricably linked. Yeah, I pretty much live for food, it seems. That’s why we not only look for interesting dining experiences, but we are willing to hunt for obscure ingredients (or get friends to track them down abroad), make space for any number of unusual kitchen gadgets at the risk of skewering ourselves every time we open a cupboard, and plan holidays around restaurants bookings. Having spent time in France as a teenager I was always entranced by the amount of ceremony around mealtimes and eating there, even for everyday dining.

Bien Vivre is Vive Le Cheese’s way of convincing us of how a little effort can be disproportionately rewarding: if you must eat at your desk, then clear a space and put down a proper cloth napkin and have a china plate to eat your Pain Poilâne with some perfectly ripened Brie de Meaux, with a dressed salad.  It’s an admirable concept.  I’m not saying I always manage to do that – of course I don’t – but I do make an effort to cook meals from fresh ingredients.  Is that enough?

Even among those of us who claim a real interest in food, I suspect meaningful engagement is still patchy. We cook when we have time, we like good restaurants, but we also buy ready meals, takeaways and, often, choose restaurants on price rather than quality. The genuine ‘foodie’ hardcore: those people who cook every day, using local, seasonal non-supermarket ingredients; and who always eat at similarly conscientious independent restaurants, is how many? A few hundred thousand people nationally? That isn’t a criticism, incidentally. Britain’s food infrastructure is against us. Who, here, realistically, could completely boycott the supermarkets or Pizza Express, even if they wanted to?

The Kitchen Counter Revolution, Guardian Word of Mouth

I guess I don’t qualify as foodie by the definition above –  I don’t buy ready meals but I mix local retailers along with basic supermarket shopping for a variety of reasons including time and cost. (I’d be Waitrose and Ginger Pig all the way if I could but sometimes the pennies just don’t stretch.) Sometimes organic and Fairtrade are crucial, other times you dash to Tesco. But when you find those shops and retailers who specialise and enthuse about ingredients, and who are willing to share that knowledge, that’s when the true value of a relationship with a retailer comes into its own.

We spent a great evening at La Fromagerie, or Cheese Heaven as it should probably be known.  Vive Le Cheese and Patricia Michelson came together to introduce us to the best of French cheeses along with wine matching and a visit to the Affineur Room to find out more about exactly what happens to cheeses to make them perfect for consumption.  One of Patricia’s firm rules is not allowing people to buy too much cheese.  Yes, really.  Not that there are quotas in operation, but as she explained, sometimes it’s just not the best way to experience food. Cheese is not long-lead. Rather than shifting kilos, she advises people to buy smaller amounts and return to replenish. That way they’re getting the freshest cheese in best possible condition – and unlike many shops, Patricia’s staff spent a lot of time getting the products to the optimum conditions for eating, and promptly.

We tasted a quartet of recipes, made up in La Fromagerie’s kitchen.  You can find all of them here. I was lucky to have snuck into a group with Katrina Alloway and Lucy Bridgers, both wine experts. The William Fevre 2008 Chablis AOC – 100% Chardonnay, was my choice for most of the dishes and Lucy remarked on how neutral and therefore versatile Chardonnay can be, and it complemented the eggs in the divine souffle, the pastry of the tart and the quiche, and the Reblochon fritters.

:: Roquefort PDO and Walnut Soufflé with Spiced Pear Chutney ::

The Chateau Coutet Sauternes-Barsac AOC 2004 was deemed ‘syrupy but in a good way’ when paired with the French Camembert and Fig Tart with Hazelnut Parsley Vinagrette which would make a fantastic dessert for those without a sweet tooth, if that makes sense.

We spent a chilly but entertaining half hour in the Affineur room, where JP talked us through how they prepare and essentially temper the cheeses. Most of the conditioning work is done in the Highbury shop, where they’re brought to temperature and moisture is added, washes are applied as necessary and so on. Affinage is essentially ‘putting your own stamp’ on it.  JP described it as having ‘a little bit of common sense, and a lot of love, for the product’.  Remember the concept of ‘terroir’ or territory when combining food and wine – items from the same region normally do well together as they come from the same ground, like serving Epoisses Affiné with a strong red Burgundy.

When storing cheese at home, double wrap in wax paper or put into Tupperware, and keep it in the fridge drawers or door.  La Fromagerie supply 89% of the London Michelin-starred restaurants and train the employees on how to maintain and maximise the cheese – trim them at the end of the evening, and store on a marble slab that’s cooled from underneath.  Again, they advise that they buy smaller amounts more often.  But don’t forget to use common sense when deciding how long you can keep cheese for – trust your nose, ultimately.  And you can always throw those parmesan rinds into soups or risottos.

The final part of the evening (sadly a little hurried) was tasting 10 different cheeses with Patricia.  I will be going back for the last ones we tasted, the Saint Nectaire, the Epoisses, Fourme D’Ambert and Vache Porte D’Aspe.  Absolutely sublime, particularly the blue. Patricia said that everything in the shop revolves around cheese (I should have asked her what to do with these) and it’s clear how passionate she is about it. This is where the benefit of local or specialist knowledge gets you excited about food again and you start planning dishes, dinners, ingredients sprees.  Her shop was one of the first of its kind and it’s enticing and inspiring. It also made me think about a French cheese tour this summer…

We left with dairy-fuelled glowing faces, and clutching recipe cards to remake the souffles and the rest at home. Next dinner party is definitely going to involve a cheese course. If I let the stuff leave the kitchen.

La Fromagerie, 2-6 Moxon Street, Marylebone, London W1U 4EW 020 7935 0341

Thanks to Patricia and all at La Fromagerie, Vive Le Cheese, and Katrina Alloway

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Banana Date Loaf

This was kind of an experiment.  I had spotty bananas lurking malevolently in the fruit bowl, gassing the other residents, and a recipe that a friend had recommended.  All good so far. I started off with the first steps of the method and then realised that the butter in the ingredients list was missing from the method. Um… I’d had long conversations this week with (professional and could-be-professional bakers about how baking is a science and you can’t fudge quantities and methods. Then set about fudging the recipe*.

Banana Date Loaf

This makes for a pleasantly squidgy loaf with a slight nuttiness from the spelt flour.  I used a four pans on a six mini-loaf tray – substantial small cakes that are good to slice and eat in squares.

Ingredients:

  • 115g unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 medium bananas
  • 30g honey
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • 110g muscovado sugar
  • 170g wholegrain spelt flour
  • 10g baking powder
  • 50g any dried fruit – I used chopped apricots

Method:

  1. Cream together the sugar and eggs to light ribbon stage
  2. Wonder what to do with the butter
  3. Think “Sod it”, chop the butter up really small and add in, and blitz again
  4. Think “This will never work”
  5. Stick the bowl in the microwave for 30 seconds so it becomes more of a batter, and the butter relents
  6. Put the chopped dates in a small saucepan with a few tablespoons of water and heat gently til the dates ‘melt’
  7. In another bowl, mash the honey and banana and add in any dried fruit
  8. Sift the flour and baking powder into the egg/sugar mixtures, then add the banana mix and the date mush.  Incorporate without overmixing.
  9. Put in lined tins, somewhat sceptically, bake for 20-25 mins or until a cake tester comes out clean
  10. Taste with some trepidation… they say “Woo-hoo! ‘Tis good!”

It should be fine to keep in an airtight tin for a few days, but there’s none left to test that theory. But next time I make it I’m going to try slicing and freezing a couple of the loaves, as well as working out when the butter should go in.  Assuming the cakes are around long enough to be frozen.  I think it would also be good lightly toasted, once defrosted.

*apart from the hit-and-miss method, I did largely substitute ingredients so it wasn’t that fudgy I guess

Here are the instructions I started with:

Preheat oven to 180C/Gas mark 4. Place eggs and brown sugar in electric mixer and whisk to light ribbon stage. Sift flour/baking pwdr into separate bowl. Mash bananas with honey. Combine all, but don’t overmix. Spoon into
tins and bake for 30-35 mins.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Dime Bar Cookies

These cookies – essentially from the Canteen book – are perfect for when you haven’t got much time but want to bake.  But like we always say, there are few dishes which can’t be improved by the addition of bacon, cheese or chocolate.  I went for the latter here, along with some more sugar. Yes, even more, in the form of Dime Bar. To the point that the normally impervious boyfriend actually had a bit of a sugar crash later that afternoon. I’m not proud. But he said they were worth it.

They only take 8 mins to cook (a little more more in the demon oven) and are very moreish. As fan of the maple syrup and bacon with pancakes – i.e. the sweet+salty combo, I love these.  There’s a batch with just chocolate added in the oven at the moment – I have high hopes.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Dime Bar Cookies

Makes 15-20

  • 75g butter
  • 90g caster sugar
  • 110g muscovado sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 120g peanut butter (I used smooth)
  • 75g porridge oats
  • 80g roasted salted peanuts, chopped
  • 60g plain wholemeal flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 50g chopped chocolate (I used Montezuma chocolate buttons)
  • 50g mini Dime Bars, chopped

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to gas mark 3, 165
  2. Cream the sugars and butter until pale and fluffy
  3. Add the egg and vanilla and mix well
  4. Add in all the other ingredients
  5. Spoon out walnut sized balls onto a baking sheet, flatten slightly
  6. Bake for 8 mins or until golden brown
  7. Leave to cool and set on the sheet for 15 mins before moving to a wire rack to cool completely

The Canteen Cookbook is published by Ebury

Brunch Extreme at the InterContinental Park Lane

At the beginning of brunch at the InterContinental London Park Lane yesterday, someone from the hotel asked me if I’d ever been there before.  A Park Lane hotel? No, not recently and not without a corporate event to attend. I imagine many London-dwellers are the same – generally when we want to go out to eat or drink, we don’t think of hotel restaurants or bars as a first option.  Those lovely Qype people folks arranged for a small group of people to go to the Cookbook Café and find out precise what they have to offer, and to see if we should reconsider.

One of the massive benefits of going to a venue with Qype, apart from the company, is that you get the best service imaginable, lots of attention and often special access – in our case, Paul Bates, the executive chef joined us for brunch and talked us through the menu.  The vast, bottomless bellini’d menu.  That’s right, folks. Choose from five different type of nectar then add Crémant de Bourgogne, swirled together in a champagne flute til the cows come home. Or til 4:00pm, I suppose, when the brunch finishes.

You start off with the Market Table – a buffet which starts with a bread selection and cold meats, and homemade piccalilli and chutney. Then it explodes into more lunch-like salads (vast bowls of chickpeas, greek salad), fruit salad.  There are pastries, juices and coffee of course too. Round to the other side of the table and it’s filled with local cheeses and sashimi.

::  Tuna Tataki ::

:: Lucious pepper salad ::

:: Seasonal preserves ::

While the group made a trip – or two – to the buffet, Paul chatted to all of us about the inspiration behind the menus and the cafe itself. As the name suggests, it’s inspired by cookery books and at first they used to faithfully reproduce dishes from the books that are on sale around the room. Nowadays they occasionally use some of the recipes for inspiration, especially when catering for events but create the menus themselves.  On sunny day like yesterday, it felt bright and airy in there – well, air-conditioned of course.  We were sitting up at the rear of the room, almost on a mezzanine level which would be great to book out for a big group. The diners were a mixture of a sloaney young crowd who looked to have been staying at the hotel, possibly for a wedding, couples, tables of ladies who appeared to be there specifically for the food and who were making numerous visits to the buffets. Can’t blame them.

:: Eggs Benedict ::

If you fancy something hot along with the Market Table, you can move on to the Full Breakfast option. Eggs any way, hash browns, bacon and sausages, potato cakes or a freshly baked waffle.  Go for the waffle. Also available on the À la Carte, we shared plates of these and the American-style pancakes.  The maltyness, the light crispy texture, and the plethora of toppings (chocolate sauce, maple syrup, that instrument of the devil that is clotted cream, fresh compote, waxy pistachios) made it my favourite part of the menu.  Ok, of that part of the menu.

Sticking with the more traditional brunch items, we also ordered the eggs benedict and most of tried the Corn and Scallion pancakes with wild rocket and scrambled eggs, both very good with sunshine yellow yolks spilling out of the eggs which are sourced from Berkshire. Reducing food miles is a concern for the hotel – as Paul reasonably pointed out, food that is procured locally costs less, is fresher and is seasonal.

On to the lunch dishes.  Yes, that’s right. We were only halfway through.

:: Pinkly perfect lamb and implausibly creamy mash ::

:: Gently spiced Monkfish ::

:: Courgette tart ::

I never would have guessed that I’d choose the vegetarian option as by far my favourite of these choices. Sweet roasted vegetables and buttery pastry. It even surpassed the lamb and duck-fat roasted potatoes for me.

To finish, we felt it obligatory to try the desserts trolley (that makes it sound insubstantial, or a chore – it wasn’t.)  Ok, I admit it, I saved space.  Here’s the plate I liberated (to share, honest).

:: Desserts selection ::

Clockwiseish from top left: Nutmeg creme brulee, hazelnut brownie, chocolate torte topped with praline and nuts, baked cheesecake, champagne mousse with raspberry jelly, Bakewell tart. I particularly loved the cheesecake, it was creamy without being claggy, and utterly moreish.

We finally, reluctantly left the table – though we’d dined for almost three hours, and moved off for a tour of the kitchens (photos on Flickr) exiting through Theo Randall’s restaurant. You can see some of the spirits in his backlit bar above – it’s somewhere I’d certainly like to come back and visit. It was named Italian Restaurant of the Year 2008 in the London Restaurant Awards and I’ll also be looking out for his book Pasta, coming from Ebury in June.  We visited the 7th floor club and then said our final goodbyes before dispersing gradually back into the sunshine for the rest of the afternoon.

Stars *****

Yes, it was a treat but our experience yesterday made me reconsider looking into what London’s top hotels have to offer. The brunch at the Cookbook Café offers bewildering amounts of choice, with literally something to suit everyone. Take a group, get everyone to plump for the £39 Bubbles and Brunch option and linger for a Bloody Mary or Bellini fuelled catch-up session.

Thanks to TikiChris, Qype and the lovely Esther, Charles and of course Paul at the InterContinental

Macadamia Orange Macarons with Caramel Filling

I had egg whites in the fridge and couldn’t think of anything to make that wasn’t meringue-based.  Ok, not strictly true. I’ve been obsessed with macarons for a while. Yes, I am using the poncy French spelling. That’s because I am particularly obsessed with the French, perfumed, pastel morsels served up by the likes of Pierre Herme and Laduree. Though the first ones I ever made were pistachio, to a Nigella recipe, to ensure that I had something suitable for a coeliac friend who was coming to afternoon tea. That’s the basic recipe that I used to start off this version.

The Macarons:

Ingredients:

  • 75g macadamias
  • 125g icing sugar
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 15g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp orange essence

Oven – 180, Gas Mark 4

  1. Grind the macadamias and icing sugar in a food processor.  Probably more finely that I did, as it led to a barely but visibly bumpy surface to the cooked macarons.
  2. Add the orange essence to the eggs, then whisk the two egg whites til stiff but not dry. Add the caster sugar. Whisk til stiff.
  3. Fold the whites into the macadamia sugar, gently.
  4. Pipe on to a parchment baking sheet.
  5. Allow to sit so they form a skin.
  6. Cook for 10-12 minutes, then cool on the sheets.

I put two trays in the (non-fan, bane of my life) oven and the bottom ones cracked slightly, so will know not to do that again.

Caramel Filling by Girl Cook in Paris:

For the filling, I knew I wanted to do some sort of caramel. I spent some time drooling over researching macarons (like Edward’s amazing ones, with lots of tips too) and went with Diane’s step-by-step, including mise-en-place tutorial. I still feel a little limited because I don’t have a stand mixer, and waited for the boyfriend to come home to help. Supervise. Take me to the A&E with burns.

In fact it’s simple, and safe as long as you follow the instructions.

I did wonder if it was going to work, beating the cooled caramel in with cream cheese and butter.

It did. I piped this glorious splodgy cream onto the paired up macarons and found that I had half a piping bag left over.  So I filled some experimental chocolate tartlet shells (experiment is a nice way of saying I screwed them up) with the remaining mixture, and popped a sliver of chopped Montezuma milk chocolate button on top.

I dropped some of these off yesterday to various people in town – because if we eat all of them, frankly we’ll turn into Teletubbies. Would you like some?

London Supper Clubs: Fernandez & Leluu and After Eight

Happily, it seems to me like Fernandez & Leluu has been around for ages – probably because we were lucky enough to first discover it back in November and have been back many times, including one of the best New Year’s Eves I’ve ever had. But they’re mere babes when you compare them to Jim Haynes, a seasoned supper club host with thirty-five years’ experience. I was thrilled when After Eight and Qype invited us to share an evening of dining, drinking and story-telling at one of our favourite east London (or anywhere) dining spots.

Not a typical supper club evening, in that it was buffet style rather than seated.  The After Eight mixologist in the corner was an excellent touch too, with four cocktails on offer.  No wonder I liked them all, as most were made with Tanqueray and I’m much better with that than vodka. The Bramble was tart, the Spring Collins was the choice of the night, the Rose Club one was surprisingly alcoholic (Niamh got the name of the liqueur which she thought would be perfect for bellinis, raspberry and rose I think) and the After Eight Alexander was creamy, minty, chocolatey, laced with cognac: I don’t usually like cream-based drinks but it was wonderful.  The barman was rather pleased with that because he wanted to keep the flavour of the chocolate itself, which he managed admirably.

Oh – the food? Prawns in a lime-citrus mayonnaise, a slab of dense terrine, springy fresh summer rolls, delicately fried spring rolls, crunchy chicken salad for starters.  Followed by perfectly cooked beef carpaccio, Uyen’s homemade foccaccia, mashed potato in potato skins, and marinated mushrooms that I would have sold my soul for.  Bread and Butter pudding – more like a crumbly little gingery scone – with Summer Fruits.  I bet you’d like to see a photo of that… um, yeah. It seems I mainly captured the guests.  So here’s some we ate earlier (ok, last year):

This time at Simon and Uyen’s it was as much about the company as the food, and listening to Jim explain how he’d initially opened his Parisien home to friends, then randoms, for over three decades (a house guest wanted to say thank you for his hospitality, and so volunteered to cook for a group of his friends: now it happens weekly, they accept 60 or more guests each Sunday depending on whether the garden space can be used and it’s a guest chef as often as Jim himself). We were all intent on inviting ourselves even before he (possibly maybe – not really) invited us all over to stay with him – yaaaay, I’m packing the bag and booking the Eurostar this evening!

He’s a natural raconteur with a genuine interest in people which helps to explain why he’s continued on with this for so long – and this is something he shares with Uyen and Simon.  Anyone who’s game enough to open their home to strangers on a monthly or even weekly basis not only has a passion for cooking but a great curiosity about life and fellow man.  Or is very, very brave. Either way I’m so glad, as supper clubs have provided some of my favourite meals over the past year.

What’s so exciting about underground restaurants, as much as the food, is being thrown together at a table with people you might never meet otherwise.  That could be risky, but to be fair we’ve only been to one supper club, elsewhere, with a ‘rogue diner’ who was rather painful, and demanding.  Though that can happen at anyone’s dinner party once the wine is flowing, or at any restaurant for that matter.  The pay-off is benefitting from fantastic hospitality – Uyen and Simon excel at this – with imaginative menus and the freshest ingredients.  We ate, drank and chattered until rather too late on a schoolnight Tuesday. Of course we finished as the After Eights were being passed around (a stalwart of childhood Christmas times.  As proven the other night, the correct way to eat them is to daintily nibble off a corner, and then post the rest of it into your mouth like a Lego man into a VHS player).  We stumbled home very happily (him: the cocktails, me: uncomfortable shoes).  Roll on the next night!

Thanks to Fernandez and Leluu, Qype, and Jo Seymour Taylor/After Eight

London Supper Clubs: Trail Of Our Bread and the Awesome Birthday Cake

I’ve been known of late to use and abuse the word ‘awesome’, though once I would have shunned it. But ‘awesome’ is the only word to describe the fantastic ‘surprise course’ at Trail of Our Bread on Saturday. A work of sugarcraft art – but how did it taste?

We’ve been to this supperclub before to review, then were gutted to miss out on the Ocean Commotion evening.

We saw some familiar faces when we arrived and I’ll bet they’ll write more complete accounts of what we ate – it was my night-before birthday celebration so I was glad to have any photos come out at all.  We started with chestnut and chorizo soup, laden with caramelised onions. I could have eaten bucketloads (classy, me).   Seconds were offered but previous supperclub experience finally came to bear and I (uncharacteristically) restrained myself, ostensibly in order to enjoy each and every course. Realistically, so that I wouldn’t need to be rolled out.

:: Fideo* pasta with garlic butter ::

:: Rabbit with petit pois, lettuce, cider and spiced glazed chicory ::

:: Rhubarb Fool with ginger shorbread ::

The main course was (Easter) bunny which again was something I’ve never cooked – or eaten for that matter. I was treated to two saddles, though I was assured that the meat on the bone was just as flavoursome. Thanks to a surprisingly good bottle of Chapel Down and a decent Cabernet Sauvignon that we were making our way through, I’m a touch cloudy about the exact order in which the next courses arrived.

There was the wibbly but tasty experimental citrus jelly, the set and ludicrously moreish Absinthe jelly, and then Jim, our host, made an announcement.

For the duration of the evening, a surprise had been hidden in plain view, right beside me.  Jim knew that it was my birthday and he suggested making a cake – which Anna baked and decorated from scratch (she asked the boyfriend “What does she like?” “Meringues.” “Sod that, I’m not making a meringue”).  It was a layered sponge with buttercream, jam and fondant.  The sugarcrafted poppy was fab, and the touch of genius was using crushed Oreos for the soil.  You paused before taking a mouthful, it was so fantastically realistic.

You never know quite what you’ll get at a supper club.  This time around we had lots of new things to try (for me, rabbit and absinthe included) and shared our table with a great bunch of girls and the odd wildcard. Group photos aren’t the norm but we had those too.  The set dressing – including Alice in Wonderland style TOOB goodiebags – was imaginative and sparked conversation, including whether we really should ‘Drink Me’ or not, when faced with little cork-stoppered bottles filled with what might have been absinthe or Fairy Liquid (vodka with colouring).

Thank you so much to Jim and Anna for making it such a fun night, and especially for the awesome flower pot – and yes, it did taste as good as it looked!  That’s definitely out of the ordinary for novelty cakes – and hell, anyone who knows me know how fussy I am about baked goods.  Anyone need a bespoke cake for an event?  I recommend you contact and try to cajole her.

*I think that’s what the pasta was… and more photos are here