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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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

Wahaca – Burrito testing

Wahaca Canary Wharf

Back in October, at an event organised by TikiChris for Qype, we spent a very enjoyable evening at the Wahaca site in Westfield, tasting their winter menu and being persuaded of the delights of reposado and añejo tequilas.  Tommi and Mark were keen that we gave them honest feedback that evening and impressively, we subsequently found out that they implemented suggestions the next day. I guess it’s true to say that drink talks: we may have been more vocal than they might have expected on one particular topic. The burrito. Or Cabbagegate as the redtops would probably dub it.

Wahaca’s strength is cooking authentic street food. The only dish I wasn’t wild about that night was the Vera cruz fish – Because European influence is strong in that region and though by itself it’s a delicious and healthy option from the menu, I wanted Mexican that night. Not European and certainly not Tex-Mex.

Wahaca Burrito Testing

That’s the problem with burritos. As Tommi explained this weekend at their newest branch in Canary Wharf (my Londonist review here), in Mexico a burrito is a dense parcel of meat, rice and beans that’s designed to be taken out to the fields: robust enough to survive the journey and fuel a day’s labours. What most of us know and love as a burrito is more of a Californian creation – lashings of cheese, guacamole and piquant sauces. From March, Wahaca will be offering burritos in their new takeaway service and they’re determined to get them right from the outset.  They’re staying as true to their ‘real Mexican’ ethos as possible while making them suitable for takeout and perfecting the flavours and combinations.

One of the biggest issues that the menu tasters had back in October was the presence of that one particular ingredient. I’m not necessarily a massive fan of cabbage at the best of times and it overpowered the vegetable burrito. Um, yes, it may have been me who mentioned the word ‘Sauerkraut’ and the burrito aficionados weren’t having any of it. Apparently one of the immediate changes to the Wahaca menu was a noticable reduction in the pickling vinegar.

Favourites on Sunday included chargrilled steak and slow cooked pork – surprisingly, with a complete absence of cabbage, or at least that’s what it tasted like.   The vegetable burrito oozes juicy mushrooms – I’m just too much of a carnivore to ever order it voluntarily.  Tommi isn’t threatening anyone with that knife, rather she was listening intently to the verdict on the custom burritos that she created.  Oddly enough, the clear winner for us did feature cabbage.  Hell, what do we know?

Stars: *****

Keep an eye on their blog for details of when they’ll launch.  It’s going to be good.  Tasty, filling reasonably priced fresh food. Can’t go wrong, really.

Macaroni Cheese

I’m not making resolutions this year – why people make themselves miserable with denial, then miserable with the guilt when they tumble off the wagon is beyond me. So, unsurprisingly, no January dieting either in this household.  Yay!

The hunt for a decent macaroni cheese recipe started some time ago (good restaurant options include the main at Canteen and the side dish in Byron) and then heated up somewhat – all down to EatLikeAGirl tweeting about The Cheeselover’s competition.  I figured this would send us in the right direction, and sure enough… yes I’d heard of Simon Hopkinson but had never actually cooked any of his dishes.  Happily a little Googling pitched up this fairly classic mac ‘n’ cheese recipe (found via What’s For Dinner Darling).

We went with the suggestions of using 200g of pasta, made small store-cupboard substitutions like [lots of] black pepper, specifically whole milk, and 100g of mature cheddar along with 40g of Red Leicester in the sauce: essential for colour. The sauce was indeed stirred for fifteen minutes – what chemical reaction that effects I don’t know.  It was the right decision.

Almost an entire packet of sliced vine tomatoes topped it, sliced about 2mm thick. Good for umami, along with the parmesan, apparently. And another shaving of Red Leicester, more pepper.

Stars *****

The result? An instant classic. Ok, not one I’d cook too regularly because of its stupendous carboliciousness (no dieting does not equate ‘try to be size of a house for 2011’), but velvety cheese sauce coating perfectly cooked pasta and, surprisingly satisfying tomatoes, is a total winner. Perfect to chase away snowy day grumblings.  As a rather accomplished home cook told me recently: “I only cook for love”.  Share the mac and cheese affection.

NYE at Fernandez and Leluu

Photo by Simon Doggett

The first time I met Uyen (above) and Simon (in the kitchen when this was taken, probably) of Fernandez and Leluu, I reviewed their east London supper club for Londonist. Wooed by their enthusiasm and professionalism, and completely overcome by their food, it was a struggle to not immediately book in for the following week. And the week after that. But that’s how you get a reputation as a stalker, or so I’m told.  Rejina of GastroGeek who was actually there the same week, said she felt exactly the same.  We went back in early December for the Miss Saigon Menu, and my personal highlight was Woven Paper rolls with Prawns, Pork, Black Fungus and Vermicelli, (Cha Gio Nem) – little crunchy parcels of prawny goodness.

Fernandez and Leluu Supper Club by you.

Coincidentally, very soon after we’d met Simon and Uyen, we started to think about New Years Eve.  Rather than fight through throngs to the bar and grudgingly hand over mortgage payments as taxi fares, I was musing about cooking at home for friends.  Then I remembered (a) I don’t have a dishwasher and (b) I’d  seen on the F&L website that they were planning to cook that night. We spent the taxi budget on fabulous wine instead. Done!

About twenty five of us spent the evening drinking, eating, laughing our heads off.  Chairs had been begged, borrowed, returned to neighbours who needed them themselves, procured from others.  It was great to see foodie bloggers such as the lovely Luiz in the crowd which was made up of friends of the couple and fans of the supper club.  Uyen’s review and some recipes are here all I can say is – make the pesto. Our version earlier this week, devoured with Gail’s Potato and Rosemary Sourdough didn’t turn out quite as tangy as hers (I suspect she used more basil) but it was delicious all the same – such reward for so little effort, as long as you have a food processor.  I was going to deny that Rejina and I polished off the lot on NYE, then I remembered hiding the wiped-clean dish in the bread basket.

Menu

:: Simon’s Terrine ::

Photo from Simon Doggett's Flickr stream

:: Uyen’s Bolognese Sauce With Pasta ::

:: Uyen’s Pesto & Garlic & Rosemary Bread ::

:: Salmon & Tuna Sashimi With Watercress Salad & Orange, Soy & Mirin Dressing ::

::  Lamb & Chicken Banquet With Roasties & Carrots ::

:: Orange & Vodka Panna Cotta With White Chocolate Shavings & Strawberry Sauce ::

Photo from Simon Doggett's Flickr stream

The sashimi was mouthwatering as always – they insist on collecting the sushi-grade fish from Steve Hatt in Islington on the day it is to be served.  This is the sort of detail that makes you happy to return here again and again and we were delighted to be included in this gathering.   It’s one of those places that I’m willing to give anything a try, from frogs’ legs to weasel coffee.  Apparently Uyen finds it hilarious to watch my face when tasting the first mouthful of each dish, as she speeds back to the kitchen – always elated at just how good it is.  I even tried the pannacotta, which is normally the sort of texture and taste I’d run a mile from.  The plate went back clean to the kitchen.   Our banquet arrived just around midnight and we saw in 2010 well fed, in convivial surroundings, awash with champagne: deeply happy.

Stars:  *****

Fernandez and Leluu’s Supper Club continues into 2010 with dates on the website – some already booked out so be quick.  Also check for Uyen’s recipes and their reviews of London and east London foodie havens.