Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Yet more books?

I had a fat little parcel waiting for me at work from play.com today. The general consensus before I split open the parcel was that there was another stack of cookery books awaiting my perusal but much to everyone's surprise they were in fact photography books - gasp! Okay one is a book on digital food photography but it's not actually cookery though saying that it does have some mad recipes for making food-a-likes for photo shoots. For example, a substance that photographs like ice cream but not something you'd want to sneak a spoon of. Nowadays I think the style is for as much gritty realism as possible but I can appreciate professionally shooting ice cream could pose many challenges. There was also an intriguing piece on getting the perfect spoon of cornflakes and capturing that moment that the milk drips off the spoon back it the bowl waiting below. And trust me, you seriously don't want to eat that either.

These are not the sort of pictures I want to take but it makes interesting reading anyway. It's also really fascinating looking at the evolution of food photography especially for magazines. The style in the seventies was to show the featured food item almost totally obscured by a opulently dressed table which in turn is situated in a lavishly velvet and brocade swathed room with candles, flowers, roaring fires, coloured crockery and lots of gold. Nowadays we want clean lines, white crockery, simple images and the food to be the main feature. We want to be salivating and thinking about eating the food and not so much about whether we'd like to live there and warm our toes by the fire.

Now this picture makes me want to run off and eat raspberries, so I think it has achieved what I was aiming for. I look forward to getting some new ideas from reading the rest of the book but now I have to go off in search of raspberries.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Bar recon crawl

My mission tonight - that I'd chosen to accept - was to check out possible venues for a client Christmas party ably assisted by a glamorous assistant. Clearly there's a lot to choose from in London but I'm really rather fussy (and I'm not just talking about my tomato avoidance tactics here). The place has got to be big enough to accommodate everyone comfortably but not so big that we either have to share with others or we rattle around too much. I like an exclusive and strictly no gatecrashers!

There has to be enough comfy seating so that those who want to can relax and chat and those who like to lurk around the bar not too far from the next cocktail can. Also it's easier to mingle and see everyone you want to see if there's only one level and not lots of cosy little cubbyholes to secrete yourself away in. Snug little corners are great for a few friends or romantic intrigues but not so good for client entertaining. There has to be some seriously tasty nibbley canapés. I don't want a buffet or anything that involves cutlery, but gorgeous little tidbits. Ideally sausages have to feature on the menu and extra points are scored if it's sausages and mash!

The toilets have to be clean, fresh smelling and ideally devoid of insulting nomenclature on the doors. The décor needs to be welcoming, not to shabby but not über cool. I want it to be modern yet comfortable and if there's a real fireplace that deserves loads of extra points as H always had that as one of her requirements! I want the festive season to be acknowledged but tastefully with maybe a few white pin lights and entirely without inflatable fripperies or things that sing!

Of course location is critical also. What's the point of a fine, funky place if it's in deepest, darkest somewhere that no one wants to travel all that way to and there's no easy access to a homebound black cab.

With all that said the fine people at Top Table (well Laura to be exact!) helped me wade through my extensive rquirements and suggest four possibles to investigate, hence the reconnaissance trip tonight.

The first port of call was Detroit near Covent Garden. This is definitely a lounge for velvet-clad lizards to sip cocktails and nod appreciatively to the cool sounds whilst cosily ensconced in some curvaceous walled hideaway. And that was really the only problem, too many little nooks and crannies.

Then it was to the chocolate brown and leather-seated gentlemen's club opposite Selfridges’s food hall rather catchily called Sequoia @ Ruby Lo. Sequoia has a nice square room all on one level and extra points H, a real fireplace! It looks just like a big front room if your front room accommodated over 200 happy, cocktail swilling partygoers. After sampling their sausages, lip tingling Merguez to be exact, we grabbed a cab in search of Zebrano off Carnaby Street. Zebrano looked interesting with pleasing light wood panelled walls and comfy seating. Though it may be on two levels but we couldn't tell by pressing our noses on the window as they're having some sort of refurbishment and one of the backs walls seemed to somewhat missing. Probably best if we leave that one out of the equation, as it's not clear when they'll be full to the brim of beautiful people again.

Our last port of call was the house of über trendy and exotic cocktails - lab (London academy of bartending, don't you know) on Old Compton Street. I've actually been to lab, I've had a couple of fabulous gingery cocktails on previous visits to their hallowed place and witnessed the bar staff doing their clever fire throwing/breathing acts. I’ve even got the stylish Shaken and Stirred cocktail book written by their bartender Douglas Ankrah. I like lab, it is a great cocktail bar but it is on two levels which rather annoying means two parties, they don't have many seats and they rely a little too much on precarious barstools for the ones they do have. I think it's a place to have a wonderful cocktail but not to linger. And finally the gender identifier on the toilet doors are 'bitches' and 'bastards'! Hmmm, points deducted I'm afraid!

So the rather bizarrely named Sequoia @ Ruby Lo it is then. Exotic ruby coloured Raspberry & Vanilla Martini cocktail in a cosy chocolate brown sitting room, anyone?

< Look at real fireplace!

An innocent knitter

It's not often that the random musings on this blog cross over with roo knits - which I enjoy reading despite my woeful inadequacy in the face of knitting needles. But today I read that Innocent, the smoothie making people, are doing a wonderful thing and looking for knitters for a very good cause - to make bobble hats for their bottles of smoothies (it's best not to ask why).
Each be-hatted smoothie purchased raises a shiny 50p for Age Concern and their progress so far can be viewed on the hatometer.

The best hats are submitted to the 'hats of the week'.

My only contribution to their cause will have to be buying a bobble-hatted smoothie from an EAT cafe or Sainsbury's but I wish I could rustle up a few little knitted knick-knacks for them. Knit one, purl one, drop one I'm afraid!

Pretty in pink!

On our trip to York last week M and I popped into Lakeland Limited as neither of us have one that is easily accessible. We found it difficult to find gadgets to buy as we’re both rather well tooled up however I did spot something that made me smile. Lakeland are selling a limited edition pink Bamix. How fabulous! Not that I would replace my gorgeous silver one with it but if you haven’t got one you might to check this out. Though would you only be inclined to chop and blend pink food if you had one?

Strawberry soup anyone?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Good pie, bad pie!

After really enjoying Bigham’s “Indulgent Beef and Green Peppercorn” pie last week, I ordered the “Sumptuous Chicken and Red Wine” pie in my latest Ocado delivery. It seemed really good as on the Bigham’s website they described the ingredients as “fresh chicken, bacon & mushrooms in a rich red wine sauce with tarragon & Dijon mustard”. Which sounds fabulous, as I really like all those ingredients but imagine my horror when I realise that they hadn’t mentioned the stealth ingredient... tomato passata. Which I only became aware of after I’d cooked the pie. Now I appreciate that the whole world doesn’t feel exactly as I do when it comes to the evilness of tomatoes but why hide this? On the box tomato passata is listed third on the ingredients after chicken and mushrooms. But on the website the ingredients are only shown as chicken, bacon, mushrooms, rich red wine sauce, tarragon and Dijon mustard – no mention of tomatoes at all. I had actually tried to look at the packets in three different Waitrose but they were either out of stock of these pies or didn’t stock them yet but not because I thought they might contain mystery ingredients, I just wanted to check them out . The Ocado site also didn’t mention the inclusion of the dreaded tomato.
I was really disappointed as I was looking forward to a tasty pie and I could only eat the really nice pastry top and a small amount of the filling – and I hate wasting food.
I am not asking for a “Warning - contains tomato!” sign in big, red, bold writing (though it may be a good idea) but just a little transparency.
Some of us just don’t
like the things; please don’t make us eat them!

Postscript: I really feel I should mention that Bigham's have been so lovely about my so-called tomato trauma and deserve so much praise for such exemplary service.

Food Uncut - cut

I’ve been trying to catch up with a stack of old episodes Food Uncut that were piling up on my Sky+. I do really enjoy the show but don’t always have a chance to watch them everyday. Some of the highlights I enjoyed in this batch were seeing the piece on potato ricers (a real favourite of mine) but surprisingly they didn’t mention that one of the pluses of using one is that you don’t have peel the potatoes. You keep all the goodness in the potatoes and save yourself quite a tedious job.

Merrilees and Stefan were talking about British cheese week and the papers had reported that generally if you asked someone to name three British cheeses they couldn’t so they duly positioned their camera in a few high streets and tested the theory. Most could name Cheddar but struggled beyond that and one guy couldn’t name any British cheeses. It seems rather weird to me. The first one I named was Flower Marie which D and I managed to track down for our Queen’s birthday meal and oddly enough it was the first one that Stefan Gates mentioned also. Spooky! Though to be honest I’d first heard about this cheese on the previous show that Stefan worked on – Full on Food and he did a piece on going off in search of the perfect English cheese and this won. It is an amazing cheese, not easy to find though.

Merrilees and Stefan had the infamous Digger Dean (Dean Edwards) who should have won Masterchef goes Large at the beginning of the year. It seems despite the travesty of him only coming second (I promise I won’t rehash that debate again!) he is doing well for himself. He has done a stint at the two Michelin starred Midsomer House in Cambridge and has now moved back to Bristol and set up a dinner party company. He did a very fine looking beef fillet with crushed potatoes and other accompaniments.

Jean-Christophe Novelli baked a Vacherin in a bread case, which seemed very interesting and tasty though I have to say looked rather tricky to eat. When Jean-Christophe sliced the bread, the Vacherin just totally escaped. You’d have to be really careful what you cut it on!

Merrilees cooked a delicious looking roast rib of beef and béarnaise sauce (Mike Robinson’s recipe) and tasty steak and kidney pie and they discussed everyone’s feeling about kidneys. I think I have to agree with Jean-Christophe, I love the kidney in steak and kidney pies but only in small quantities when outside a pie. Though I can’t say I’ve had kidneys very often ‘au natural’. Merrilees and Stefan discuss the "pimp my snack" website (which I believe has been renamed) and a couple of their production team make a giant pink and yellow iced biscuit.

Marcus Wareing tells us that his favourite restaurant is Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, his choice of butchers is Randall’s and his hidden gem is Patisserie Valerie.

Stefan makes his ultimate hot chocolate which has lashings of cream, egg yolk and crème de cacao. And Olly Smith convinces us that wine boxes are the way forward especially for the single diner (or should I say drinker) as they stop the air getting to your precious wine so they can stay at their best for a prolonged period of time. I like Olly, he reminds me of a gourmet Boris Johnson; they also sent him out to Southend in search of the best fish and chips.

I’ve still got plenty to watch so I’ll have more to report soon.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

First thoughts of C time

(great photo courtesy of the Harvey Nix hamper website, which always gets me virtually shopping - and sometimes, actually)

Wow, it’s still October (just) and the first Christmas food magazines had dropped onto my doormat and it’s Olive. It comes with a little olive covered 2007 diary but to my chagrin the recipe for September is tomato gnocchi. Arghh! Am I the only person who always has the check the pictures, quotes or recipes for their birthday month? It’s just a little quirk!

Well one of the first good things I noticed – the suggestion of having Gü brownies in lieu of Christmas pudding – what a fabulous idea!

There’s a recipe for ‘dead good’ blinis, which I am rather partial to. And a tough-in-cheek article entitled ‘What kind of foodie are you?’ The choices are ‘the traditionalist’, ‘the perfectionist’, ‘the foodie maniac’, ‘the party animal’, ‘the environmentalist’ and ‘the forager’. It supposed to indicate what sort of Christmas dinner cook you are, how organised you are, what food you serve and where you buy it from. I think I am a hybrid perfectionist/party animal – Gordon Ramsay with a soupçon of Nigella! I’d like everything to be just so but a touch of last minute randomness normally kicks in. Well no one’s perfect!

What did leap out and catch my eye is ‘mini beef en croute’ and an article on Joël Robuchon and his fabulous signature dish of purée de pommes de terre. It is “the first thing clients ask for”’ says M. Robuchon. I am salivating already!

There’s some creative cocktail canapés including ‘potato skins with smoked trout and horseradish cream’, ‘proscuitto, pear and rocket rolls’ and of course ‘honey and rosemary cocktail sausages’.

Gordon Ramsay produces a stunning looking turkey with a lemon and sage butter – I don’t normally do a turkey for Christmas but it does look good.

The UK’s 10 best dishes according to Restaurant magazine make very interesting reading. I think some of my restaurants to visit for 2007 will have to come from this selection. I am extrememely intrigued by the best sausage and mash which they vote Boisdale of Belgravia number one. Very interesting indeed.

Well it’s to soon to decide on a Christmas menu but it’s food for thought and I do enjoy the planning. I’ll try not to mention it to D though - the ‘c’ word is not a popular one!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

'The' North star!

I'd been really looking forward to our visit to Juniper in Altrincham. My appetite had been seriously whetted by the excellent press reviews I’d read and the glowing comments made by Gordon Ramsay. We knew what we were having as Tuesday's have a special menu at Juniper's and at the supreme price of only £30 a head. After we were seated I mentioned my deep and abiding hatred of tomatoes and the goats' cheese in the dessert and was quite surprised by the reaction, I was admonished for not informing them when I made the booking. I was a little surprised and felt suitably chastised. We'd come a long way to eat here and we'd not come for this particular menu just for a night when they were able to squeeze us in this very popular place. Clearly our waitress was a huge fan of tomatoes and goats' cheese and felt I was tinkering with the chef's artistry but after some consultation said "they'd see what they could do".

That being said I had chance to look around at the restaurant and boy, was that worth checking out. I'd never seen so many artificial flowers in a restaurant outside of those mad, local in France. They've got twisty metal light fittings all round the restaurant which on their website are not unnecessarily adorned with red silk roses but at the moment, they are. Personally I think that flowers should be real or not seen. But Juniper has even more surprises. They have a huge tree branch on their ceiling, which is covered in fake blossom hmmm. But enough about the curious décor, what about the food?

This is the menu as written but there were couple of little extras.

Glazed Gruyere Cheese Risotto, Prunes,

Sweetcorn, Garden Peas, Brazils


Smoked Haddock, Celery, Potato and Dill Soup,

Olive Oil, Chives, Pea Puree, Caviar


Slow Cooked Fillet of Beef, Roquefort Blue Cheese,

Assiette of Tomato, Barley, Rosemary, Port, Pear,

Saffron, Lemon, Walnuts


Assiette of Cheese


Glazed Lemon Tart, Goats Cheese,

Praline and Fennel Ice Cream,

Warm Cream Cheese and Vanilla Anglaise


Coffee and Petit Fours

Our first amuse gueule was a shot glass with a Cauliflower and Red Pepper Foam with Caper Berries accompanied by a Sea Salt and Chocolate Flap Jack. Clearly this was going to be a seriously special meal.

We were told to keep the little spoon and was handed our tiny dish of Glazed Gruyere Cheese Risotto containing Prunes, Sweetcorn and Garden Peas with a Brazil Nut in the middle. I thought Gary Rhodes served the teeniest risotto ever but this one was just a few unctuous mouthfuls. The peas and the Brazil nut was very apparent but I wasn’t aware of prunes in the couple of mouthfuls I had, I would have expected to detect the sweetness but didn’t. Really delicious though!

And we needed the little spoon again for the Smoked Haddock, Celery, Potato and Dill Soup with a lovely surprise of Caviar hidden in the bottom of the shot glass. The smoked haddock was in the foam on top of the potato and dill soup and again I must admit that I couldn’t really detect the taste; it was just so incredibly subtle (unusually for smoked haddock!) but again, a stunning flavour.

Next it was the main course, this was a lovely piece of Slow Cooked Fillet of Beef with a Roquefort Blue Cheese on an Assiette of Tomato with alarmingly purple Port Barley with Pears and Walnuts. They had swapped my assiette of tomato for an assiette of tapenade and even though I’m not crazy about olives they are so much better than tomatoes so this was great. I was kind of hoping that the Roquefort would be left off as I think the taste overwhelms slightly but I still really enjoyed it. The alarming port coloured barley was really unusual, I’d probably be horribly conventional and have preferred a potato accompaniment but it was different and added an interesting nutty texture to the dish – like undercooked risotto.

Then we were given an Assiette of Cheese to share, I think there were 14 different cheeses here and I was trying to keep all the names in my head. All I really did was earmark the goat cheeses for immediate removal to M’s plate and then I cut the remaining pieces in half and tried to recall their names. They were all at the peak of ripeness but I wish I could remember what I’d had.

Before our dessert we given a shot glass of Cornflake Milk which was a refreshing surprise and then a really fabulous Glazed Lemon Tart which in M’s case came with Goats’ Cheese Ice Cream and mine in a much more suitable Orange Sorbet – seriously good!

The Petit Fours were the tiniest sliver of a very good Custard Tart; I could definitely have squeezed a little more in if they’d offered it and yummy gooey Chocolate Truffles that I had to take with me so maybe I couldn’t have crammed in any more custard tart!

All this was accompanied by a really delicious La Croix des Moines Lalande-de-Pomerol red wine which was really wonderful and we had a glass of Sauternes to accompany the fabulous glazed lemon tart. My attempts to take a couple of photos were foiled by if truth be told there being no light at all but it would have been a really photogenic meal if I’d had a small spotlight with me. I was trying to be discrete so it was seriously no flash – but I needed it very desperately this time.

This was an amazing meal; it really can’t be faulted as each mouthful had some new surprise. I soon forgot about the bizarre décor! A definite three forks for Juniper - this is a North star, Gordon was so right!

Tea at Betty's

It's just a roller coaster of exotic trips and fine eating on this visit! Today we head across the Pennines to York. We have promised ourselves tea at the famous Betty's. There are two Betty's in York, the larger one with big picture windows and the enormous queue and the smaller Little Betty's above the shop selling the loose tea with a slightly smaller queue. When our white lace capped waitress finally escorted us to our marble table we immediately ordered tea for two. Unfortunately this was interpreted as just a big pot of Earl Grey, very refreshing but where are the little crust less smoked salmon sandwiches and strawberry jam scones? Eventually the misunderstanding was rectified and we were able to tuck into a very fine afternoon tea indeed. We had cucumber and cream cheese, egg mayonnaise, York ham and smoked salmon sandwiches. This was followed by a fat scone with jam and a tiny chocolate slice, lemon curd tart and a raspberry filled pastry. The bread of the York ham sandwich was a little hard; maybe these were near the top of the pile or something. It is the only tiny criticism and Betty's deserves two cake forks for their tea.

It was so relaxing as well; we were much more tucked away in Little Betty's cottagey establishment than we would have been in the larger more open Betty's. I can see why it's such a popular place and Betty's is the perfect escape for a delightful rejuvenation after a hard morning visiting the impressive sights of York or hitting the shops. They even do an extensive menu on top of the afternoon tea; the table next to us tucked into a tasty looking plate of fish and chips. It's shame Betty's is so far away, well next time I'm in York...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Take half a dozen eggs...

I'd been extremely keen to try out the poached egg contained in ravioli ever since I finally stumbled on the recipe courtesy of Anna and Jamie. I'd encouraged M to get the new Jamie Oliver book - "Cook with Jamie" for several cunning reasons - a) I'd hardly had a moment to get fully acquainted with his new book and looked unlikely to until I managed to get the special secret extra day a week to just read my cookery books, b) I needed the recipe for the gooey egg ravioli and really didn't fancy carrying such a large book and c) if I persuade M to do more home cooking there's plenty in here for inspiration.

And now I have had some quality cookbook reading time I can comment more on Jamie's new tome. I love his take on salads; it was Jamie who got me eating and really appreciating salads again. He doesn't treat them as as just garnish on a plate but makes the leaves and the dressing and all the interesting ingredients part of the main feature. In this new collection there's the "all day breakfast salad", the "Fifteen Christmas salad" and the "amazing potato and horseradish salad with fine herbs and bresaola".

And then of course there's the pasta. I've been making fresh pasta way before Jamie was showing us his nieces helping him to pod broad beans to make his smashed broad bean, mint and ricotta ravioli. I'd got my Imperia rolling machine years ago and I used to take it with me when I visited friends and make everyone fresh pasta. Needless to say this applied to visitees fairly locally and not a flight away. Can you imagine the horror at Heathrow if they discovered it in my hand luggage? They'd probably make me prove that it was what I claimed by getting me to whip up a bit of tagliatelle!

I've always found making pasta very relaxing. I like the gently kneading until you get the smooth elastic consistency and the rolling of the lumps of dough until you have the long sheets of the silkiest pasta which I always hang over the kitchen cupboards to dry on crisp white t-towels. Jamie has some interesting recipes for "black angel tagliarini with scallops", "lovely crab fusilli", "proper blokes' sausage fusilli", "summertime tagliarini", "ravioli of pecorino, potato and mint" and "open stain-glass lasagne with roasted squash" in his new book. I've only tried using fresh herbs in pasta once. It was in an early experiment with making nests of tagliatelle for drying. Unfortunately I didn't dry the parsley enough and it went greener round the edges than I intended. I've stuck to fresh pasta since, if you're going to make it fresh you might as well eat it fresh to really appreciate it. If I want dry pasta now I'll just grab a packet of Del Cecco.

But gooey egg ravioli awaits.

I've decided to make pasta with two eggs and 200g of '00' flour so they'll be plenty left over.

Jamie's recipe contained ricotta but I didn't have any and I opt to use a finely chopped leek fondue instead - well it's not as if I ever really follow a recipe anyway they're more for reference and inspiration.

I sauté the leek fondue whilst making the pasta so there's time to let it cool.

Jamie's recipe made twelve raviolis but it wasn't clear how many this was to serve. I guessed two per person so I made four ravioli with one back up in case one split whilst it was cooking. The timing specified two minutes to ensure the pasta was cooked and the egg yolk remained runny. I found however that even though I only gave them the requisite two minutes, some were softer than others. I think next time I'd split them between two pans or give them a bit less. You finish them off with butter and a bit of the cooking water.

I thought the taste was great but it wasn't the most attractive dish I've ever cooked. I'll have a rethink for next time. I'd like to try it with the mash potato to restrain the egg yolk perhaps. Okay, now I just need another half dozen eggs.

Grip of a gorilla

After my fabulous food photography trip in France I’d been planning on taking Roger’s advice and investigate using tripods more with my photography. He pointed me in the direction of the Manfrotto website which is a favourite of his. Very interesting, but admittedly my little baby Leica looks rather lost perched on top of such a splendid beast so I really only need a table top tripod. I was flicking through my first ever photography magazine and espied what I now know is a gorilla pod – a very curious mini tripod that has totally flexible legs so they can be attached to more or less anything to enable you take photographs in extreme and awkward places. On our trip to Bath I saw this in a camera shop and remembered it as a 'monkey grip' – which is close enough and duly added it to the collection. I even christened it on the Northern Belle by using it to capture my charming bracelet.

My gorilla pod should really help me with my close up food photography as you can get really low shots. Now of course the temptation is to see how mad a place I can attach it to. Hmmmm.

Have gorilla, will travel!

Brown Sunday

After a long but fabulous day yesterday eating and drinking and travelling in such style we fancied a relaxed and easy Sunday lunch. Somewhere local and not too much like a Harvester! We opted for Brown's in Hazel Grove, which also enabled an essential familial visit.
Brown's was all decked out in well... brown. Their chairs had brown suedette covers and the banquettes were chocolate brown leather(ette!) and the whole place had a slight touch of Disney meets medieval, with a distressed look to the dungeon effect doors. M thought the place desperately needed doing up, I think it had just been done up and this was their desired effect. Hmm, I wonder who was right?

The food was better than we expected, there was a special Sunday menu with roast beef and all the trimmings being the main option but they were other interesting choices. M plumped for the Thai Crab Cake, I was pleased when I saw the tomato and the coriander that I'd gone for Homemade Leek and Potato Soup instead. My main was Pan-fried Pork Steak, French Mustard, Cognac and Cream and M choose the Salmon which came with more yet tomato. Clearly my tomato-da is working very well! The vegetables were Oven Roasted New Potatoes with Rosemary, Carrots, Broccoli and Ratatouille. The eating of the vegetables mainly fell to me and M limits herself to a floret, a baton or two and a single new potato. They were tasty apart from the ratatouille, which I eschewed (tomato again!). We both finished with a beautifully presented slice of Chocolate Fudge Cake. The chef was certainly enjoying putting the final flourishes to each dish and they favoured large, deep square plates to serve everything on.

The food wasn't bad, the pork was a little dry but that's all, the presentation may have had the edge over the food but it was an extremely pleasant Sunday lunch. The only thing that I found very odd is that no one asked is what we wanted to drink, either when we sat down or when they took our order. I kept thinking they would but not so, after the soup eventually asked for water but after another long pause I got a jug of tap. This was too chlorine-y for my tastes so I asked for a bottle. The oddest thing was when I attracted the waitress and asked for the bottle of water she said we were entitled to a glass of wine with our meal but at no stage had anyone asked what that wine should be or indeed whether we wanted an alternative. I was most perplexed, as I always understood that was how a restaurant made their money - via the drinks.

All in all a little odd but definitely not like a Harvester so a brown fork for them !

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Utterly charming

As a souvenir of our fabulous Northern Belle trip M added a new little silver charm to my collection - a VSOE (Venice Simplon Orient Express, in case you're interested) martini glass complete with silver olive. And it looks very charming with all its friends - a black handbag, a red shoe, a red lipstick and the ubiquitous fork.

So very diva!

Bathing Belles

The alarm goes off at 4.40! Only I could plan a surprise trip that would necessitate such a hideously early start. Today we are boarding a Northern Belle train and heading off to Bath for the day. The Northern Belle is the burgundy and cream member of the Orient Express family. You get the British Pullmans down South - like our trip from London Victoria to Folkestone, the Northern Belles covering the Midlands and the North and the Flying Scotsman covering Scotland in tartan splendour.

The Northern Belle carriages are themed around Great British stately homes or castles, ours is Glamis. Glamis is a 14th century castle in Tayside, Scotland and the former childhood home of both the Queen and the Queen Mother. The carriage has the castle and a subtle thistle theme inlaid in yew, sycamore and pear tree pale woods in the panels. There are more thistles in the ceiling murals and the silver vases on all our tables also contain thistles as well as roses. We are encouraged to explore the other five dining carriages and my favourite is Belvoir as it has a fabulous honeycomb and bee design inlaid into the white oak panels.

The liveried stewards serve us a leisurely brunch. We have Bellinis (shades of Harry's Bar Venice) followed by a Fresh Fruit Cocktail and then Scrambled Eggs wrapped in a Smoked Salmon parcel, served on a warm buttered Crumpet finished with fresh Whitby Crab and Hollandaise. Finally there's a selection of Danish Pastries and a Morning Bakery Selection with Jams and Preserves. This is all seriously tasty as you'd expect, though maybe just a notch down from the food on the Orient Express itself. I was wondering why this might be. It might be because on the Orient Express there are three dining cars and there are sittings for meals, you place your order and are attentively served by the maitre d'hotel and all his staff so the whole experience is like a fine restaurant. On the Northern Belle everyone is dining at the same time and as we happened to be sitting at the end of the carriage closest to the kitchen we were the last to be served on every occasion. This meant that every plate of smoked salmon parcels wafted by our noses and as we were hungry, this only served to tease us. Also either because we had a long journey to and from Bath or because they had so many to serve there seemed to be a long lag between each course. I suspected the former and wondered if the journey were shorter we would have the meal delivered in a more realistic timeframe. This wasn't a huge problem but just a slight niggle both M and I commented on.
On arrival in Bath we visited the assembly room where Jane Austen and her friends would have danced and played cards and drank tea. We were informed that tea would cost about £10 a pound whereas gin was only 7 pence a bottle therefore only the rich drank tea and the poor stuck to gin!
After a visit to the pump room and the Roman baths we took a little of the infamous water and went in search of a place to take a little of the rich man's drink, tea. Though actually the queue for an afternoon tea in the pump room was a little scary so we descended on the next nearest place which turned out to be a Valrhona chocolate shop – how fortunate! We had their double Minerva –
a heady rich hot chocolate and shared a kind of chocolate brownie (though I think it has essence of fridge cake about and shouldn’t really have been called a brownie – it was rather nice though!)
After further exploring the delights of Bath we headed back to the train station and awaited our carriage back up to Manchester. We had purposing eaten little in Bath as we anticipated a four course fine dining experience.
Starter was a spiced parsnip soup but I had asked for this to be substituted and they delivered a very fresh tasting Leek and Potato Soup with a warm Apple Scone sat in the middle instead. The main course was Aissette of Wild Game, Braised Red Cabbage, Roasted Cocotte Potatoes with a Burgundy Jus. I really enjoyed this, M suspected she had a duff knife and found the meat difficult to cut but I didn’t have this problem. The game was a juicy selection of pigeon, venison and wild duck – extremely tasty! And to finish a Great British Cheeseboard followed by White Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding with Vanilla Pod Ice Cream and tiny yummy Chocolate Truffles. I had some Cornish Brie (this could have been a little oozier for my tastes – but I appreciate some get scared by runny cheese!) The dessert was a surprise I thought it would be pretty heavy after all that but it was very delicate. A really lovely meal again! There was the same overlong delay between each course but this didn’t mar the experience. I think the Northern Belle has to have three forks really; the food, the service and the experience are really all so magnificent. I am looking forward to be back on board again in the future!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Manchester united

Today a shopping excursion into Manchester is planned. I love shopping in Manchester, there are so many great shops now (the bits of the Arndale centre that were lost in the bombing are seriously not missed) there's Selfridges, Harvey Nix and so much more. A huge improvement! And clearly the influence of the infamous WAGs (Wives and Girlfriends of highly paid footballers, for those not Heat aficionados) have helped to encourage lots of designer names here. There were a couple of restaurants that I'd toyed with - 'Urbis', 'Simply Heathcote's' or an unnamed French restaurant M remembers fondly - but what with 'the main event' tomorrow it seemed somewhat excessive. Brunch was supposed to be soda farls from M&S but in lieu of these we had Paul Rankin's Irish Potato Farls with fried eggs. This sustained us through a busy shopping day (another good reason for the train, I can't be stung for exceeding my luggage allowance!) we eventually find the favourite French bistro but it is now an Indian!
For dinner we have a little miscellany from M&S, Coquilles St. Jacques - the one without the mash potato for M, followed by two small dressed brown crabs with bread and finally, the christening of the new cheese board. And an early night for tomorrow.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Northern (de)lights!

I'm rather disinclined against air travel at the moment. I do appreciate the extra security measures are there to protect us but it taken much of the joy out of the experience. Also travelling to and from the airports can be rather a bind, especially if it's one of the far flung ones (Stansted) and you're travelling there by train for example. In fact the more I travel from London I realise how awful it all is if you have anymore on you other than a newspaper and a bottle of Evian. How someone in wheelchair or with a pushchair manages is beyond me. The tube in particular seems to have been designed in a series of small flights of stairs arranged to confound and frustrate the weary traveller. Clearly I could travel lighter but when a week is planned somewhere not so hot and exotic a girl is going to need more than a little black dress and a toothbrush! Perhaps if I was heading to the beach I could manage with a bikini, a few sarongs and sunglasses (as if!) but a city holiday in weather that looks a little dubious, much more challenging. My last three trips away - Cambridge, August bank holiday, huge thunderstorms; New York in September otherwise known as the rainy season and La Vendee France, October in the torrential rain. Hmmm I am beginning to see a pattern here, perhaps I should always find room in my case for my leopard print wellingtons; it seems that I encourage rain! And now I head up North for Manchester, the city full of umbrella toting people, famous for 'gentle precipitation', 'light drizzle' or even 'huge downpours' I think I can safely say I will get damp! And I am going by train this time, so I've still got the staggering through underground tunnels with my luggage but at least no-one I going to tell me what I can carry in my handbag.
There are various foodie trips planned, I better pack my fork!

The first night is catered by Ocado. Despite there being no Waitrose in the vicinity (well not until next year anyway) they are happy to dispatch a little apple covered van with a collection of Waitrose goodies for our delectation. I had been keen to try the new range of Bigham's pies and had plumped for the "Indulgent Beef and Green Peppercorn" one. It seemed very appropriate as my love of pies comes from my Northern roots and the much loved pies (normally meat and potato) from the corner chippy. The Bigham's pies come in nice individual white ceramic dishes which they encourage you to re-use, so much so they are putting all the best re-uses on their web-site.
It was very tasty with a bit of creamy sautéed cabbage. Though M felt there were just too many vegetables in the pie and thought that she may have come across a chunk of a much despised swede! Ahh M and her love of vegetables! I thought it was very fine and look forward to trying the others in the range. A great start to being 'up North' again.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The travelling fork

As I am about to embark on a further flurry of travelling, I thought I should clarify the point about ‘have fork, will travel’. Clearly it is unwise at the moment to arm oneself with a fork on international air travel and this is tantamount to a request for a full body search and possible incarceration so the fork I actually always have with my is this entirely impractical but symbolic silver charm. It's not clear the size of my fork from this picture - but it's tiny, about the size of my thumb nail. This is always attached to something I’m wearing but unfortunately wouldn’t assist me if I wanted to taste something delectable on my travels. I just have to hope instead that my intended destination is suitably cutlery-ed up and I will be happy.

I recall reading that Nigella Lawson keeps a whisk in her handbag (I keep one in my drawer at work!) and I used to always travel with a little silver pepper mill in case the establishment I was visiting only offered a pot of ‘dust’ in the place of peppercorns and a suitable grinding device. This used to travel with me on my weekly trips to Europe though did cause many a security guard untold excitement on discovery. I don’t travel so frequently now and the rules on what is acceptable have been considerably revised so it doesn’t seem worth the aggravation. If I do get to take that planned trip to Moscow I may put it in my hold bag as in my, albeit limited, experience with Russian food was in Helsinki and it was very salty. The pepper mill helped me counteract some of that, though actually all the food I had in Finland was generally too salty for my tastes so I could be casting unnecessary aspersions on Russian food.

If I am travelling somewhere where I would be called along to cook (not M or D’s as they both have a very fine collection of knives), I generally slip my favourite Global knife in to my bag also though generally only if it’s going in a plane hold. If I am going on a train, as I often do to Europe now, I am pretty uncertain whether it is acceptable to be tooled up and often leave it behind – just in case! I’d hate to be in a situation where my favourite knife got confiscated! Shudder!
Many years ago I bought a fabulous folding Laguiole knife (with the silver bee on the handle) in France, thinking that this would be handy if I needed a decent knife to prepare vegetables or other food. However I can’t have this about my person in the UK, so it remains safely at home. And frankly, I find folding knives very difficult to fold anyway – I always think I may sacrifice a finger in the process.
So a miniature fork it is then – so much safer even if it serves no earthly purpose!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Drink, Diva?

Writing about Harvey Nix’s wonderful hampers encouraged me to have a little browse on their site and I thought this news item about their “limited edition vodka” was most amusing. I am not a massive vodka drinker, though with a shot of Chambord and some sugar-free Redbull makes a very exhilarating “Chambord Energiser”. Though I have to admit; I think many cocktails are made better with a good slug of Chambord. But back to the vodka. I love the fact that once you have drunk all the vodka you can have the Swarovski crystals turned into a magnificent bling ring!

And what a fabulous name! What do you think DD? Do you fancy a drink?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Check out Harvey Nix's foodie windows!

I really like the giant satin foodie goodies in the windows of Harvey Nichols that I snapped as I passed by. The crabs would make fabulous little cushions and the shiny satin strawberry tarts and eclairs would look gorgeous strewn over a white bedspread.

Tasty, but not for sale though.

Funnily enough, I didn't even venture to the hallowed Vth floor in search of some food this time - I was on a more sparkly mission but I am a big fan. I love their selection of cheeses and meats, their perfect vegetables, their wonderful lemon olive oil (so good with asparagus) and pesto (delicious with everything), the artisan bread, the scrummy chocolate, and I am a sucker for the packaging. I particularly like the Italian lady in the sunglasses and have her adorned on many an item. And I always habour unnatural thoughts about their HN hampers, I am very happy to browse the hamper catalogue every year and pick the perfect gift for myself!

Mmm and yum, indeed!

The quest for the perfect chocolate brownie

I have been fearlessly checking out chocolate brownies - for the good of the blog you understand! Now for me the perfect brownie has to have the correct cakey squidgeness, supremely good chocolaty taste and must not be adulterated by unnecessary extras. No chilli, no coconut strands and no nuts. The key word here is chocolate. Now to be honest I haven't tried a huge amount of brownies but I have reached a couple of initial conclusions.

The little individual ones from Gü are exceedingly good (or Güud, as they'd say!) and Waitrose do a fine version also. I had a lovely brownie once in Leon once but haven't seen them there again. I went in search of apparently ‘the best chocolate brownie ever’ according to one of the food magazines, which is made by Cocoa Loco but I wasn't too impressed. I just thought it wasn't being true to the inherent purity of a chocolate brownie - it had superfluous ingredients in it. I even had an extremely disappointing one at a nameless place that seemed to not even have real chocolate in it at all.

So far, after a far from exhaustive search my favourite chocolate brownie is the near-perfect specimen sold at Benugo. I appreciate there aren't that many Benugo outlets outside of Old Street and Clerkenwell (formed as a Pret beater by brothers Ben and Hugo!) but fortunately they are quite popular as in house coffee/snack concessions in some large forward thinking companies, so you may be able to track them down there.

I don’t think my quest is over yet; I am sure there are other gorgeous hunks of chocolate brownies out there, feel free to throw me a few crumbs and tell me where my search should lead me to next.

Any suggestions gratefully received.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Northern star

M set the challenge; she mentioned that she'd heard that there are no Michelin starred restaurants in Manchester and I was intrigued. I hadn't realised that Manchester was such a cultural dearth of fine dining but after Masa in New York, I can only ask, "What do those men from Michelin know anyway?" So I hit Google and as it happens a couple of restaurants in the Manchester vicinity seem to have been singled out for their honoured stars. Northcote Manor is always mentioned favourably but seems rather 'a long way out' and definitely so does the one in Chester but Juniper in Altrincham seems a very interesting option. Okay not exactly Manchester but it has some very fine accolades and even Gordon Ramsay is quoted as saying “Paul is pure talent, driven by a great creative energy; a powerhouse of the North ” - and Michelin have deigned to award a much-hallowed star. They seem to have some intriguing menus - the all-white menu for example where, as well as the food being mostly white; Champagne is given to girls who've made the effort to wear white. We have picked a special menu night but not one with a dress code or I guess it would have to be squid ink risotto followed by caviar then blackened chicken and cavalo nero and then a tasty dessert of licorice ice cream and probably Guinness to drink (ughh!) I don't think I'll bother!

Though I did spot an “assiette of tomato” on the menu that'll have to be avoided and even a suspicious touch of goat's cheese in the dessert. I'm sure it won't be a problem to have a few little tweaks made to the menu. I look to seeing if Gordon was right. And at least we can wear whatever colour we like!

Not-so secret life of Mrs. Beeton

I am looking forward to checking out the Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton on BBC4 tomorrow. Some of the action was shot at the house next to mine way back in April and I am rather anorak-ishly looking forward to identifying my front door and of course enjoying a good yarn. She was a bit of a dark horse that Isabella!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Aching for Aikens

I felt that as much as I’d eulogized Tom Aikens first book in my previous post, I had not really mentioned what lay beneath the covers so I thought I should have a better look. The first chapter is quite unusually vegetables and quite rightly Tom states how important it is for us to eat seasonally as, for example he says “Buying asparagus out of season is bad for the well-being of our farmers and the stability and growth of business for the UK market. Basically, just don’t do it.” I so agree with you Tom, I get really annoyed with Peruvian tasteless asparagus or pappy out of season strawberries (M, I hope you're feeling guilty?) when we do them both so well in the UK when in season. And that’s not casting aspersions on Peru; It’s just too far for our vegetables to travel from.

And just as I suspected, it looks seriously good – how does ‘roast asparagus with pan-fried duck eggs and grilled pancetta’, ‘asparagus with asparagus mousse’, ‘cauliflower and grain mustard puree’, ‘carrots and sauternes jelly’, ‘balsamic glazed carrots’, ‘fresh peas with pea shoots, pea mousse and Parma ham’, ‘buttered peas with spring onions and lettuce’, ‘white onion and thyme soup’, ‘artichoke soup with sauternes’, ‘roast baby artichokes with thyme’ and ‘pumpkin, honey and sage soup’ sound just for starters? Or maybe from the fish chapter - ‘roast turbot with celeriac fondant, braised chicken and thyme sauce’ or ‘roast scallops with ham and leek’. There are some fantastic soups, I feel I will christen my new silver Bamix very soon!

The photographs are by John Lawrence-Jones who doesn’t seem to have worked on loads of cookbooks before but I like his clean, precise style. I really like this book, you’re not going to get lots of stories from Tom's childhood or explanations about the origins of a particular dish in the same way as you would in Anna Del Conte’s or Giorgio Locatelli’s, but you’re going to get a different passion – a passion for his perfection and I find this fascinating.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Mmmm, shiny Bamix!

I bought my shiny new Bamix today! Now I already have a fine white Bamix but at one of the food shows I attended, I noticed they now have them in silver and I very much hankered after it. At the time I couldn’t justify such a wild expense just because I wanted a silver one instead of the white one but when I was last at D’s and she bemoaned that a small accident of dropping her Bamix from a height into the floor had broken a foot and somewhat incapacitated it, I hatched a cunning plan. I thought I could get myself a silver one and sell my old one to D. She gets one that works and doesn’t have to pay for a new one, albeit white and I get a shiny new SILVER one – hmmmm. Now Bamix are very good and probably would have repaired her old one, but that might have meant an extended time 'sans Bamix' whilst it vacationed in Switzerland, this seemed a better plan. A cunning plan indeed!

And doesn’t it look lovely?

For those who are unaware the legend that is Bamix, they produce super fast stick blenders that can operate in any receptacle, they make amazing soups and crush ice and turn all manner of unlikely liquids into thick, frothy desserts and very importantly – are incredibly easy to wash up. Very important! And I believe Gordon Ramsay is a huge fan also! I think they’ve been going for 50 plus years and my grandmother had one. I don’t know where my grandmother stumbled across one but nowadays you can get them from Lakeland (but to be honest, this is a lower powered, lesser model), from the Bamix UK distributor or from the same people at one of the trade shows – the advantage of that is that you see them in action and they are cheaper than on their website. I honestly can’t remember the last time I used my super large food processor or my blender, the Bamix just sits on my work surface and is ready for action at a moments notice. The huge advantage when Bamixing a soup over using a blender is that you need to cool the soup down slightly before adding to the blender (in batches normally) or you may find the steam inside the blender will force the top off and you’ll decorate your kitchen in butternut squash soup as I did! The Bamix you take to the pan you cooked the soup in so no bizarre soup decoration on you or the kitchen.

And no I’m not a salesperson, just a happy customer!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Homage to Anna

I've often said how much I enjoy the cookbook club events at Blueprint Café (see here, here and here!). How could I not? The merest casual observer to this blog would know I love cookbooks and I love to eat, so what more could I want? Tonight was extra special though, many turned out to pay homage to Anna Del Conte and her latest tome “Amaretto, Apple cake and Artichokes”. This isn't surprising as her books, her food and her writing have influenced so many. I saw Antonio Carluccio, Ruth Watson, Rose Prince and an unconfirmed sighting of Simon Hopkinson. I believe Nigella was due to be here but unfortunately wasn't. Anna spoke about some of her inspiration for the menu we had tonight and she mentioned that the two most referred to recipes in her book were the plum dessert we were due to have and her infamous lemon risotto. Now I know I've made at least two references to the latter on this blog so I guess she's spot on!

Tonight's menu was:


Scarpazzone Lombardo

Prosciutto di San Daniele, grissini di Torino


Minestra di pasta e ceci


Brasato all'aceto


Pure' di patate


Gelato di crema alla vaniglia, prugne sciroppate al rosmarino Cornetti alle mandorle


Pecorino Stagionato con Miele

Lametably my Italian is very poor but one menu item leapt out at me Pure' di patate. We are having Italian mash potatoes, heaven! And it was, creamy and with Parmesan. That means the Blueprint Café has earned a place on the Mash Hall of Fame leader board. Well done Jeremy Lee et al, I'm sure you're very proud!

The Scarpazzone Lombardo were cubes of nuts and egg custard & nice little canape. The Prosciutto di San Daniele was introduced by a nice Italian man from Negroni and was very fine indeed. The ham was exceptional as well!

The Brasato all'aceto is the tenderest beef cooked in vinegar and I had somehow mislaid my knife but as you could have easily eaten it with a spoon it wouldn't have mattered (just like one of my favourite boeuf au daube). One of the reasons I really like these events is that you dine with different people on each visit. This time I was sat with the delightful F and D. They seemed considerably less eccentric than some of my former dining companions but no less entertaining. F calls herself a recovering vegetarian; recovering in the fact that she can now eat fish and intends to move on to meat in the next few years. Her reason behind this was as a foodie she felt she was restricting herself to a too limited choice. Hmmm, maybe I need to consider such an attitude to my food black list. With that in mind I did have a few mouthfuls of Minestra di pasta e ceci to see if I still can't abide tomatoes. I can't! Maybe I need to work on this. My foodie credentials have been questioned recently because of my black list and my answer was that the avoidance of the things I don't like encourage me to be more creative with the things I do. But I can see the point I guess, how can I say I love food if I want to run a mile in the presence of tomatoes? All I can think it that the flesh of a tomato makes my flesh crawl, actually so do the seeds and the skin and even the feint whiff of them! I think I may be a lost cause!

The much lauded Gelato di crema alla vaniglia, prugne sciroppate al rosmarino was incredibly good. The plums were so tasty though personally I would have preferred them stoned as they would have been easier to eat. The Cornetti alle mandorle - melt in the mouth rosemary biscuits were just delectable. I am very keen to recreate this dessert for myself and I can see why so many have commented so favourably about it.

To accompany the very fine Pecorino Stagionato con Miele which is the gorgeous ewe's milk cheese often confused with Parmesan, we had a glass of Il Moscato Grappa Nonino Monovitgno which if I hadn’t already mistaken it for my water glass of water and knocked it back in one, I probably would have enjoyed much better! The Grappa was introduced by the Italian daughter of the family who revolutionised Grappa production. When her mother fell in love with her father and then Grappa she realised that Grappa was often relegated to the kitchen and not considered good enough for the table. She went about changing this and this is the resultant drink. I’m sure it was very nice but knocking back believing it was water made me cough somewhat!

It was another fabulous evening, Jeremy Lee and his team produced some stupendous food even though Jeremy is somewhat incapacitated after an adventure on a push bike which has left him rather wrist-ally challenged! Glad to see you back though, Jeremy! And Richard and all the staff out front made sure everything went swimmingly.

I also got a brief audience with Anna, the great doyenne herself. I was able to tell her that I’d been on the photography course with Roger Stowell (who'd shot the photos in his Classic Food of Northern Italy book) and she remembered him most fondly.

And I look forward to seeing everyone again at the next event on Monday 4th December 2006 for Tom Parker-Bowles – ‘The Year of Eating Dangerously’ and I believe the subsequent evenings scheduled are:

Thursday 25th January 2007 - Sue Lawrence – ‘A Cook’s Tour of Scotland

Thursday 22nd February 2007 - Sophie Conran – ‘Sophie Conran’s Pies’

Wednesday 16th May 2007 - Skye Gyngell – ‘A Year in My Kitchen’

Please check the Blueprint café site for details; I do think they can be a tad shy about advertising these events and they are slightly tricky to locate but here is the link when they are updated.

I’ve tried to include a couple of photos of the food from the night but it was quite dark (sorry, I mean ambient!) and I haven’t really done it all justice. After my photography course, I feel I should arm myself with at the very least a miner’s helmet and a few large white reflectors when attempting a little restaurant reportage. I am sure I’d be very popular!

At least thanks to Roger, I’ve been weaned off using flash; so unflattering for a white plate!