Clarence Court Eggs and the Heston Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding

What could be better than having Mark Hix expound personally on why he recommends Clarence Court eggs at a select tasting in the private dining room at Hix Soho? Better than doing a blind comparison of three egg brands via steaming plates of creamy scrambled and perfectly presented boiled eggs? Better than the eggselent* three course eggy menu that was served up to us afterwards?
The answer is “Taking home 2 doz eggs in an Orla Kiely goodie bag”. BRING IT ON.

Mark Hix talked to us about why he’s a Clarence Court Ambassador (partly the vivid yellow colour of the egg yolks – as he said, you eat with your eyes too), chattered about the modern art (all of the art in the restaurant was specially commissioned) and we had Tonnix wine to drink (a collaboration between him and Mitch Tonks, conceived over a lunch at their mutual Portuguese wine merchant, label designed by their mate Tracey Emin) and tried different a trio of egg dishes.  I loved the posset which surprised me – usually not a fan of that type of dessert.

I’m already a fan of Clarence Court’s Burford Browns, and as it happened we’d just shopped so I was looking at a fridge containing 36 eggs. It’s not that big a fridge. First off, a luxurious Saturday breakfast of boiled duck egg and sourdough toast. (if only we’d had truffles too we could have tried to recreate our favourite Tristan Welch starter at Launceston Place) After 5:40 mins precisely as mandated by Delia, they were little pools of yolky sunshine and my only complaint was I hadn’t been offered two of them. The chef pointed out that they’re bigger than chicken eggs. I  tried to nick some of his and had to make do with purloining toast.

I’d contemplated making quail scotch eggs but on an evening when I knew I had to use up 500g of mince, the boyf had an inspired idea: thanks to his flicking through Nigella’s “Kitchen“, we ended up with Meatloaf.

Rather than the chicken eggs which she naturally suggests, I used one duck egg to bind it all admirably and nestled 10 hardboiled quail eggs into the centre of the meat. It works a treat as every slice has a reasonable allocation of egg throughout.

Finally I decided to attempt my grandmother’s custard to finish the eggs – I reckoned it would be the perfect accompaniment to something else in the fridge – the Heston from Waitrose Hidden Orange Pudding. I’d been thrilled when Waitrose sent me one and then hesitated to open it. My Dad *loves* Christmas pudding and I knew I’d be very popular if I brought it home.
Like “home”, home.
To Ireland, for Christmas. That was a month away at that stage.
Boo. Then Helen kindly said she had lots left over in her fridge and gave me some, and I get to be awarded the “Best Daughter” prize. Win!!

I have to admit, I really liked the pud. Mainly because it smelled just like the one my Mum makes, so it was going to be a winner, though Mum’s pud has certainly never strayed anywhere near an orange, and it’s honestly nothing like a Sussex Pond Pudding (one of my colleagues pointed out that that was where the inspiration probably came from) but I like the whole nuts and the sweetness – it was rather less stodgy than Christmas pud can regrettably be.  Famously, it sold out and there wouldn’t be any more on offer as they take too long to mature.  That makes feel almost churlish saying how well it went with proper egg custard, made with one of the last Burford Browns.

Ingredients

  • 1 Burford Brown egg yolk, at room temperature.
  • 10 g sugar
  • 100ml whole milk
  • 1 vanilla pod or vanilla essence to taste

Method

  1. Mix the milk and sugar in a saucepan
  2. Put the vanilla seeds or essence into the mixture to infuse and then bring it slowly to the boil
  3. Beat the egg yolk
  4. Slowly pour the hot mixture over the egg yolk , beating constantly so the yolk doesn’t curdle
  5. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and whisk constantly while heating gently until it coats the back of the spoon.

Now it’s on to a dry January, and a vast stacked of Post-It’d book marks.  Lots of new recipes to try this year.

Spaghetti Wars

It was only after I twirled the first forkful of pasta in Bar Semplice that I twigged exactly what I’d signed up to. “Carbonara cookoff, marvellous…compare dishes from x and y, yes” – with the chefs sitting there in front of us. Next off why don’t I just decide between your two children.

We started off with a Prosecco and Franciacorta comparison. I hadn’t been aware that Prosecco is barrel fermented where Franciacorta is bottle fermented (same as Cava and Champagne). The latter was a blanc de blanc, so entirely made from the Chardonnay grape. I’ll admit I liked them both, and was glad that this wasn’t in contention.  Both Mario and his business partner Giovanni Baldino are from Lombardy and strive to source ingredients there for both of their restaurants.

On to the battle. In the blue corner, the celebrity chef and Italian traditionalist, Marco Torri. Head Chef  and co-owner of Ristorante Semplice, and a fine goatee. Sporting chef’s whites and Birkenstocks. In the red corner, the challenger, Jane Hornby. Fighting fit even after spending six days (six!) at BBC Good Food in Birmingham. Author of What To Cook and How To Cook It. Wearing very fetching earrings and a lovely purple frock.

When the dishes arrived on identical platters, we were struck by how dissimilar they looked.


Dish 1 was startlingly well seasoned, evenly coated in finely ground black pepper. The jungle of pasta was perched in a lake of creamy sauce and lots of bacon peeked out from underneath.

Dish 2 looked comparatively dry. Specks of sauce clung to strands of spaghetti, again with generous  amounts of meat on show.

Time to dig in, and the chefs rejoined us from the kitchen. The restaurant’s Muzak errs gloriously on the side of 80s kitsch and had either “under pressure” or the Rocky theme tune popped up next, it would have worked.

Dish 1 was punchy and rich from the first mouthful. My scribbled notes say pecorino, egg yolk and speck, and ‘very yellow’. We debated whether it was cream or pasta water making up the sauce.  The liberal peppering added to the burst of flavour without overpowering as you might have expected.

Dish 2 was immediately sweeter. Certainly Parmesan and I thought maybe cheddar. The bacon tasted less smoked. Overall the effect was ‘comfort’. I could have eaten a trough of it.  We decided it had garlic – and revised that to garlic oil.

Then we had to give our verdict. Audible gulp. We dallied by first attempting to call who’d cooked each dish. Our side of the table assigned Dish 1 to Marco and thought Jane had created Dish 2 and it turned out we were right thought we didn’t get all of the ingredients right.

Marco’s dish was made in the most traditional way with pork cheeks, and pecorino from Rome, egg yolks and pasta water.  Jane’s used supermarket ingredients – a core principle of her book – including parmesan and whole eggs, and I think she said she put garlic in but left it whole (I’ll check when I get my mitts on the book again). Both of them were very tasty but it was interesting how different they were. Jane’s tasted like perfect comfort food from the cupboard, and Marco’s was more sharp and defined. I’d have a plate of either right now.

What made me decide which was which? Simple. Apart from the pecorino in Mario’s, it was the pepper.  Most non-professional chefs (by that I mean people who haven’t worked in a commercial kitchen) are more reticent about seasoning.  The pepper gave it away.

Trattoria Semplice, 22 Woodstock St, London W1C 2AR

What to Eat and How to Cook It is published by Phaidon.

Thanks to Sauce for inviting me.  I seem to also remember agreeing to do a stage in Marco’s kitchen at some point – more on that later…

Fernandez and Leluu + Unearthed = Action Against Hunger

Imagine being a small or artisan food producer – possibly a family firm, making a product you believe in, to what’s probably a tried and tested recipe. Something you’re passionate about and believe in, and want to be able to focus on perfecting.

Or a committed foodie, a consummate party-thrower, someone for whom “fun” is inviting thirty strangers over to your house three times a week and producing dish after dish of marvellous morsels to an unknown audience.

Simon Day created Unearthed Foods as a way to not only showcase but to distribute fantastic regional continental foods in the UK. With links into major retailers, they can get great exposure for smaller brands and allow the manufacturers to concentrate on production. Importantly, they also operate a robust supply chain so that the logistics make sense and they can import goods from a number of different locations in Europe efficiently. That makes more goods affordable for the consumer here too, and helps support the company’s aim of introducing regional specialties to this market. I guess that, technically, coordinated shipping reduces the carbon footprint too?

Fernandez and Leluu are long-time favourites of mine and they were a great pairing with Unearthed.  Simon  Fcame up with some fantastic combinations, using Unearthed products along with original dishes – sweetcorn soup with chorizo oil drizzle above. The first course included unctuous rillettes from Le Mans, not unlike the ones I had when I spent time in that city as a teenager. Nothing you could have told me as a seventeen year old would have convinced me that a couple of decades later I’d be wolfing them down, I loathed them then. But paired with oyster mushrooms cooked in wine and butter, and they were unbelievably moreish.  This was probably my favourite course of the evening – or was it the pears poached in champagne and vanilla? The broken rice was damn good too. As were the flamenquines.  We were also treated to Campo Viejo wines and both the Rioja and the cava went down really well.

There was such a buzzy crowd, the chatter was so loud we were on the verge of yodelling at each other, while cooing over each successive course as it appeared before us. Conversation and consumption aside, there was actually a more important reason for us all to be gathered together.

Action Against Hunger.  They’ve moved on from their ‘Fight Hunger Eat Out‘ campaign in September and October to focus on ‘Fight Hunger Eat In’. You see where they’re going with this.  I’ve had many fabulous meals in supperclubs for a donation of about £35. That’s roughly the amount of money that’s required to treat a child for malnutrition which is pretty sobering. Providing tools for a family costs around £20 (and if you donate online and are a UK taxpayer, boost your donation with Gift Aid).  Unearthed will donate 1p from all sales, and they’re aiming to support a project in Zambia for grandparent-headed families, where parents have died (mainly due to AIDS) and the children are now the responsibility of elderly relatives who may be unable to work or support them.

Check out Fernandez and Leluu’s great tips on entertaining, stock up on Unearthed tapas if you don’t want to cook and get some friends around.  Cook for them and ask them to make a donation to the charity as ‘payment’.  If you’re allergic to kitchens perhaps consider buying the charity lunch – donating the same amount as your next restaurant meal. It really is all in a good cause.

Thanks to Fernandez and Leluu, Unearthed, and Wildcard.

Dishoom Restaurant – London’s got it

I love Twitter. On Thursday night post-movie, we were struggling to find somewhere to grab a bite to eat and I quickly posted as much as we wandered around. Immediately a response from @dishoomLondon popped up: “Come on over, we can squeeze you in!”.  I don’t know if they connected work-me with Twitter-me but I’ve been aware of this Bombay Cafe’s imminent launch for some time as I did some work with them a few months back. It’s like when a good friend is pregnant and you’re anxiously waiting to see if all of the fingers and toes are intact and if they call it Moon Unit. There was an exceptionally clear vision behind this concept – would they pull it off?

When we walked in, I saw architect’s drawings come to life in front of me.  Dishoom‘s walls are lined with framed photographs and original ads from Bombay newspapers. Twisted black electrical cables loop from the light fittings across the room like long ropes of liquorice, between authentically wobbly ceiling fans.  On each marble-topped table sits a plate stand to stack up main course plates, and a canteen of sparkling cutlery for you to help yourself. Dishoom is modelled on Bombay institutions such as the Britannia Cafe and Leopold’s, some of the last outposts of an Iranian cafe culture that has all but disappeared. The detailing in the main dining room, from the glowing filament light bulbs through to the almost Escher-worthy tiling is perfect, the overall atmosphere calming and elegant during our evening visit but with a decided air of bustle coming from the open kitchen and sidealong bar. We watched as the barman made two deep pink Bollybellinis for us (rose, lychee and raspberry). Yeah yeah, you say. But what about the food?

Cafe Crisps with their traffic light system of dips, (I really liked the tamarind, the amber of the trio) and Dishoom Calamari to start. Some of the best, most succulent baby morsels of fresh squiddy goodness I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.  The marinade is spiced and sweet, almost honey-like. Next up, Bombay Sausages, with shiny caramelised red onions, along with the excellent House Black Daal and the freshest roomali roti and garlic naan. Nom. I could easily see myself heading here for lunch on colder days for just sausages and daal. No, I wouldn’t share the daal, you’ll have to get your own.  Murgh Malai is an unusual cut of chicken with some fat, which is chargrilled and crisped (don’t expect solid cubes of breast) and the Biryani above was moist, spicy and had meat that fell apart throughout it.

To finish we polished off a Meantime Union – not only does its malty treacle notes hold up well to the meaty carb dishes (it was chosen in a blind trial) but the Grant Wood-esque label works too – and shared a passionfruit and ginger Gola Ice. If they do those for takeaway and this weather holds, they could not only clean up on the Indian food market this summer but could beat the hell out of all the local frozen yoghurt places for the perfect cool-down snack.

Young staff are enthusiastic and friendly. There’s details to admire everywhere, from the cabinets of authentic toiletries in the bathrooms to the house rules on the wall. I can imagine coming here for breakfasts or meetings, sitting in the banquets along the wall (wifi on from today, apparently) and downstairs boasts more tables, a full bar and deep leather-bench booths.  Service, food and atmosphere were great, and this was during soft launch.  They’re fully open from next week.  ‘Dishoom’ is the Bollywood equivalent of ‘Pow!’ or ‘Boom!’ and is also a quality, or self-confidence.  Does their food have that ‘dishoom’? Given what we’ve seen so far, I’d say yes. I know I’ll go back. And if they continue as they’ve started, it’s capable of becoming a London institution. Phew.  Dishoom has got all its fingers and toes.

Dishoom, 12 Upper St Martin’s Lane, London WC2H 9FB

Sam Moody at the Bath Food Festival

Every once in a while I think “Gawd, I really need to get out of London for a while, for a week, just for a day”. I happily forget that I get a bit antsy when the vista changes from concrete to pasture, and start considering a little cottage in the country with maybe some chickens in the back yard (the cottage would definitely have a yard – and ‘land’ possibly) and me baking bread every morning. Shuddit at the back, thanks. In lieu of living the Good Life though, I’ve found a very acceptable in-between solution.  Food tourism. Not only on an international basis – we’ve taken to booking holidays around what there is to eat at the destination – but the UK has some fantastic food festivals and I’m up for doing the tour. It started this weekend with the Bath Food Festival.

We were there to see Sam Moody, Head Chef of the Bath Priory Hotel. He’s a very amiable chap – I liked how his cookery demonstration was occasionally punctuated by good-natured heckling back and forth with some of his kitchen staff who were in the audience.  He concentrates on using fresh produce with minimal food miles, including ingredients grown in the hotel’s kitchen garden.

During the demo he sous-vided Hinton Estate beef which he gets from Bartlett & Sons butchers in Bath. He generally buys part of a carcass, likely 50%, and the rest of it might end up at somewhere like Le Gavroche. This was for his Wild Mushroom Salt Beef Ragu, made with morel, mousseron and girolle mushrooms and served with fresh asparagus tips. One of the keys to his style of cooking is butter, butter, and some more butter and oh my, does it taste bloody marvellous. Sam reckons that butter for cooking shouldn’t be highly flavoured, as you’re trying to show off the ingredients instead.  I don’t normally need any convincing to get the animal fats out but I’m now even more envious of anyone with the cash and space for a sous-vide. Constant cooking at 48℃ then caramelised in a really hot copper-bottomed pan to brown it, and that beef came out softer than a stick of butter and laden with umami.

Excuse the finger (not mine) in that blurry shot but the audience were fairly voracious. That meat moved faster than when it was alive. Being utterly unshy ourselves, frankly, we grabbed the serving spoon and ate what was left in the pan, and we shared the spoon. Food bloggers – no shame, eh? We also snatched the remains of the beef straight off the chopping board. But see the crowds in the back?  I’d take my chances with the carving knife any day.

The other course was a seafood risotto with carmelised scallops on top, dressed with Richard Vine‘s microsalads (I’m tempted to think that they’re garnish gone frou-frou, but having read up a little I’m very impressed by his green attitude and focus on seasonality).  We didn’t get near a scallop this time either but the risotto was suitably moreish. It incorporated both mascarpone and parmesan, I’d have preferred it without so much of the former as I’m not a huge fan of cream or creamy dishes.  Sam makes risotto daily at the hotel and gave some interesting tips during his demo: get the rice really hot, always start with seasoning to cook the flavour into the rice, and ignore the conventional wisdom to stand there stirring it for hours because if you are using boiling stock then that should keep the rice in motion. As well as the fish stock, they presalt the turbot, sea trout, pollock and sea bass in cubes so it doesn’t just flake apart during cooking.  Herbs included chervil, parsley, tarragon and dill chopped and stirred through.

We made our way back to the hotel for afternoon tea. I loved the gardens – especially the fact that they grow some of their own ingredients. When Sam had said during his demo that he’d picked the broad beans in his garden, I thought he’d meant at home. This impression was cemented by the fact that his mum and dad were in the audience to watch, and had brought him some boysenberries for the dessert coulis. They looked very proud of their boy – as well they should be.  I’d love to go and have a proper meal at the Priory, Sam’s cooking is quite special. The hotel is luxurious and quite the hideaway, and Bath is charming.  It will go on the List of Places To Run Away too – possibly before the next food festival too.

Thanks to Sam, Sue and everyone at the Bath Priory Hotel, and to Syamala at Sauce.

London’s Best Burgers

Where have I been? What a lax attitude to blogging. It might be fair to say that I’m recovering, after a period of intense dining that firstly almost did me in (in the happiest way) and then propelled me onto a diet (less said about that, the better). I’m also working with a chocolate company at the moment. Cooking, eating and thinking about food had slightly taken over from writing about it for a while.

But it would be a shame and probably a disservice to not document The Week of The Burger.  It was a while ago now, but not easily forgotten.  Technically it started on the Sunday at a friend’s birthday party, with regulation bbq burgers.

Photo from Hankoss's Flickr Stream

The next day, it was Burger Monday. Off to Byron in Islington for El Doble – a double patty and some of Daniel’s special El Doble sauce. As Daniel says, the secret to Burger Monday is the extras that you get such as off-menu combos, and the company. It’s recommended.  We went to the 9:30 sitting, ravenous, and managed to devour an admirable amount of sides too.  Tom was on hand to keep the beers flowing too, with a round on the house. If you’re a burger fan then I’ll bet good money you’ve already found Byron, especially as branches are popping up like mushrooms at the moment. Canary Wharf is spacious and the closest to me, so will probably be my most regular haunt, but I still like what I consider the original, on the site of the old Intrepid Fox in Soho. The loos in Wellington St win Best Set Decoration prize.

Tuesday, the burger theme continued, with Sunday’s party bag (we got sent home with much of the uncooked meat) being turned into more of a meatballs affair with lush tomatoes from Natoora. We made a piquant sauce – I think some of our takehome El Doble might have made it in there along with enough fresh chilli to remove most of my tastebuds. So good, so [much] protein, so far.

From Simon Doggett's Flickr stream

We hadn’t planned Wednesday but Mr D (and half of Twitter) pointed out that Yanni would be at the Florence in Herne Hill. The Meatwagon is literally a moveable feast, as long as you manage to get there early enough and hope that the previous however-many order tickets he’s issued don’t have seventeen items on each one. That night I bumped into an old uni friend who’d been to the previous Meatwagon Florence night, and hadn’t managed to get served. She’d arrived first in the queue that evening. That’s dedication from a woman who’s six months pregnant.

We didn’t get served til almost 10:30, having arrived at 7:15pm. Luckily there were plenty of amenable people around to chat with. And Mr D popped out to chat about something around 9:45 and somehow managed to snare a ‘spare’ burger – I didn’t ask – so I didn’t quite resort to eating beer mats. When the food did arrive, after an utter absence of conversation for about ten minutes where we simply stuffed our faces and felt the rush of blood sugar topping up, I made Mr D promise to not let me order a burger next time, because the Philly Cheese is unsurpassable. (Bear in mind I’d had half a burger already so might have been distracted).

I have a funny feeling that there might have been a burger on Thursday too and I’ve just blocked it from my mind.

For Mr D’s birthday, I’d booked a table at Bar Boulud.  Much lauded chef, equally hyped burgers.  We went with the Piggie (bbq pulled pork on top of the patty) and a Frenchie (confit pork belly) and while I’m almost more tempted to bang on about the amazing charcuterie, they were delicious, beautifully presented and delivered promptly. In stark contrast to the Wednesday, there’s literally no waiting around here which was one of Jay Rayner’s bugbears when he reviewed it, being asked to vacate within two hours. It suited us perfectly, served as an almost OTT brunch and we wandered off across Knightsbridge to Clerkenwell to walk it off.  That was a month ago, and I’m still not sure I have worked off that week.

So how do they stack up against each other:

Byron: Consistently great. Easily available. Great value.

MeatwagonJust about worth the wait. Worth getting home well after midnight.  I’m a sucker for novelty too.

Bar Boulud.  A perfectly conceived, concept burger. Great value set lunch.  Slightly surreal crowd.

In fact, I’ve probably listed them in my personal order of preference.

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.

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

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

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