Charley Bigham’s “Ready Meals” and Berry Bros & Rudd Wines

I was seduced by the notion of Berry Bros & Rudd wines, plus the fact that the lovely WineSleuth would be matching those wines to Charlie Bigham’s food when accepting an invitation to what became hashtagged #Bighamsup – or Bigham’s Supper in Bermondsey.  When I realised that Charley Bigham – pictured above – makes “ready meals”, I admit I slightly rolled my eyeballs and thought to myself (again) “Read the invitation more carefully next time.”

:: Green Thai Chicken Curry ::

:: Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni ::

:: Fish Pie ::

Denise had chosen a fantastic selection, and we debated the matching dish by dish.  We concluded that neither the 2009 Gewurtztraminer or the Rioja Blanco were right for the punchy spice of the Thai Green Chicken Curry, but brought back the Au Bon Climat Wild Boy Chardonnay we’d tasted with the Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni, which was much more successful. So, to our surprise, was the food. The fish pie boasts chunks of salmon the size of your thumb, the Cannelloni is velvety smooth comfort food and the promsing spicy, peanut smell of the Indonesian Chicken Satay wafts gently up to you before  your fork gets anywhere near it.

One of the difficulties that Bigham’s encounters is that ready meals have a pretty poor reputation. Their products are currently stocked in Waitrose and via Ocado which boded well, but I shop there and had never heard of them – or thought I hadn’t. We don’t tend to click on that category on Ocado or wander down that aisle. Maybe I’m a bit of a food snob – and I like to cook, obviously – but what really put me off is that ready meals are generally rubbish. Let’s be honest here.  Whenever I’m desperate enough to resort to one, it almost always ends up in the bin in favour of toast or cereal.  It was only when we talked to George and Charlie and ramekins came up in discussions that I suddenly said “We’ve had your pies before.”

Casting my mind back to an utterly miserable day in November, I’d wandered into Waitrose in Marylebone and on the first aisle, spotted some pies and a lasagne that were on sale. After a rubbish day I just wanted something to put in the oven (the boy may have whispered lasagne too – and then I’m just a sucker for nice ramekins frankly. Sigh) The lasagne comes in a wooden tray like a Camembert box and was… really rather good? Tasted quite… what’s the word? Homemade. That’s what it tasted like.  The Chicken and Mushroom Pie was so moreish I seem to remember us arguing over who’d have the second one.  I didn’t find the packaging memorable at all which was why I hadn’t made the connection.  They need to brand their ramekins because I’ve kept and reused them which would have cemented their brand into my mind.

I loved the dishes we had on Tuesday, including their remarkably good Fish Pie. It’s certainly good enough to serve to guests, the kind of ‘I know you love me enough to not expect my kitchen to smell of fish for days just to make you a fish pie’ type of friends.  I’ve since tried some more dishes at home (Breton Chicken good, not so keen on the Catalan Chicken) and the various pies are in the freezer for the weekend. Charlie Bigham’s meals are a genuinely good alternative to cooking totally from scratch, particularly the oven dishes, when you’re pushed for time or just can’t be bothered. Comforting food made from good quality ingredients. The kind of thing you’d expect to make at home, really.

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The Harmony of Wine and Water

You might remember the Evening Standard’s Water on Tap campaign from a few years ago.  Their bugbear was that restaurants habitually made you feel rather inferior if you dared to answer the traditional ‘still or sparkling’ with a tentative ‘Tap?’

As much for the rationale that the ice-cubes in your mineral water were made from the Thames anyway, as to assert our freedom to stand up snotty sommeliers, I went along with the campaign. Though mainly to slake thirst, and often a bottle of mineral water would be ordered too. Water is water, water is good, get two litres in somehow, right?  But it rather sat in the background, as it in the photo above.  I didn’t really consider the impact of what was in the water glass on the food that I was ordering, or how it might factor into the whole dining experience. Then I met Andreas Larsson.

S.Pellegrino are probably best known for their eponymous mineral water rather than for their non-carbonated Acqua Panna plus more recently they sponsored the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.  Andreas, World Sommelier 2007,  works with them amongst other clients, as a taster and consultant. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a man who loves his job.  And why wouldn’t he? Andreas is affable and obviously thrives on communicating and teaching about his passions – food, wine and taste. I suppose his services are increasingly required as we move through rolling stages of what he calls ‘gastronomic refinement’ – when a food and its market moves from being niche or undiscovered and graduates to encompass increasing levels of speciality, as has happened with coffee and olive oil in the past, for example.

Feeling a touch self-conscious, we set about tasting and comparing tap water, both S.Pellegrino waters and red wine, white wine, champagne and port.  We tried canapés, garlic prawns, rare beef and pastry desserts. Though I guess we wouldn’t have been invited along if there wasn’t a story to tell, it turned out to be fascinating. We started with champagne – so a mouthful of bubbly, chased with Acqua Panna which is described as ‘smooth’ or ‘velvety’. The light fruity and citrus flavours of the champagne still lingered.  Another sip and we brought out the S.Pellegrino.  In direct contrast to the still, it acted like a palate refresher and all traces of the champagne disappeared.  And the tap water? Well, in the context it didn’t fare well. Overwhelmingly chemical and it had to be chased away with mineral water.

We moved on to harmonising with food.  Essentially Andreas would suggest that you consider your water order as carefully as your wine – why spend time and money on a special bottle only to wash away the tastes with a heavily carbonated water, or one that doesn’t stand up to robust flavours?  As a very general guide, pick a (gently) carbonated water to live up to reds and red meat, and don’t drown your Chablis and seabream.  Again it was interesting to see how the beef and a burgundy benefitted from the S.Pellegrino while the Acqua Panna was very soft in comparison.

All in all, it was an intriguing experiment. I can’t promise to always live to Andreas’s standards, I’ll certainly try to consider water choices when eating out in future. It’s all part of the ongoing food education – and it was a delightful afternoon.

We were tucked away upstairs in Hush for the session, and thanks to Jo and Sarah at Grayling for organising.