Memories of Food Foraging

Someone on the BBC Food Chat board asked about our memories of food foraging.

My response came out more poetic than I’d intended, as I wrote it off the top of my head, without pause:

  • Cockles gathered on the beach, shuffling through the sand with our bare toes, occasionally getting pinched by a disgruntled crab…
  • Mussels pulled off decaying wooden break-waters…
  • Blackberries foraged in country lanes and out in the fields…
  • Walnuts collected from the ground and dried in the French autumn sun…
  • Chestnuts gathered in a field full of trees — and possessive cows who laid cowpat landmines to impede our passage…

Mini Restaurant Reviews: Cardiff, Wales

Pete and I spent a weekend in Cardiff recently, to attend the Cheese Festival and to celebrate my birthday.

Here are reviews of the following:
Dinner and Breakfasts at Ty Rosa B&B
Coffee & Cake at Craft in the Bay
Lunch at Madame Fromage
Woods Brasserie

Dinner and Breakfasts at Ty Rosa B&B
This is where we stayed during our visit. I’d booked dinner at the B&B in advance, thinking we might not feel up to heading out on our first night, especially as I’d not been sure what time we’d arrive when I first booked the trip.

Whilst I’d already learned that Stuart had been a professional chef in a previous life, I hadn’t expected quite such an excellent meal. Pete had a French onion soup that was deeply flavoured from the heavily caramelised onions, thick and brown and served with one cheese toast floating on top and an extra two on the side. He’s rather fussy about his French onion soup but had nothing but good words to say about Stuart’s. I was equally delighted with my homemade crab, cockle and laverbread cakes served with salad and a generous pot of mayo. One would have been plenty as a starter but I greedily munched my way through both! For our main we had both chosen the sausage, mash and giant Yorkshire pudding though were caught out by the huge size of the portion. Three locally-made pork and apple sausages on a vast mound of homemade mash which itself sat inside a plate-sized Yorkshire pudding, the whole lot topped with onion gravy! Very good indeed, though I couldn’t eat even half my mash! Pete ate nearly all of his and consequently started making close-to-bursting moaning noises!

I decided against pudding and Pete delayed his decision for a while as decamped to the kitchen and chatted to Paul and Stuart. Stuart and I got into a discussion on cheese at which point Stuart dug out their cheese box and had me taste a number of cheeses!

Pete decided to squeeze in a dessert and Paul made up a red cherry crumble. He used a vast tub of ready-made cherry filling and some frozen ready-made crumble topping, which resulted in a surprisingly acceptable crumble served with good quality ready-made custard. Of course, Pete was so full of soup, sausage and mash he managed less than half the crumble though I did assist by finishing off his custard!

For our first breakfast we started as we meant to go on, with a fabulous home-cooked offering. The menu is extensive and I eventually settled on eggs benedict and Pete for a cooked breakfast, choosing various items from the a la carte menu. Before that we helped ourselves to juice from the buffet (which also offered cereals, yoghurt and fresh fruit) and some nice hot toast too.

For our next breakfast Pete had the “Persian eggs” (eggs fried in lots of butter with cheese and paprika) and I had pancakes with sausages with maple syrup. Very naughty but very enjoyable!

Our last breaky was eggs benedict for me with mushrooms on the side and a lovely fluffy omelette for Pete.

Coffee & Cake at Craft in the Bay
A BBC Food Chat board friend had recommended the cafe in Craft in the Bay, a gallery and shop showcasing and selling contemporary Welsh art and crafts. The building itself is a combination of a refurbished shed and modern extension and very light and airy. Although I liked some of the crafts on display there was little I’d want to purchase though I admired the skills more than I loved the finished pieces. However, our main reason for popping in was to visit the coffee shop, which had been recommended as a potential lunch stop. Not hungry enough for lunch after our huge breakfast we ordered cakes and coffee instead. I can definitely vouch for the quality of their coffee and walnut cake, very light and moist and more generous with walnuts than most examples I’ve eaten. Pete enjoyed the chocolate and raspberry cake he chose too. I particularly liked the single white dahlia flower on each table, which had been coloured like a rainbow by drawing inks up into the petals via the stem.

Lunch at Madame Fromage
Stuart at the B&B had recommended a deli called Madame Fromage, located in one of the pretty arcades in the town centre. There hadn’t been any free tables when we first visited, hoping to stop for coffee but we returned on another day and had a really wonderful lunch there. The deli is in one unit and has tables inside and out but they have also taken the unit opposite and filled it with extra tables, which is where we sat. Pete quickly chose a croque monsieur with salad and a local beer. I was thrilled to find my favourite Ecusson doux French cider in stock but couldn’t decide what to order so I popped up to the deli counter and noticed a wonderful looking pastry. The male owner explained that it was a fougasse filled with Emmental, black forest ham, rosemary and olives which sounded good to me! When it arrived it was a much larger portion than I expected and came with a lovely side salad and some rather marvellous homemade chutney. The owner popped over to our table later to check everything was OK and I asked about the chutney, telling him it was particularly good. Later, when I went back into the main deli to pay, the owner looked slightly shy as he thrust a carrier bag at me and said gruffly that it contained a gift for me (I hadn’t mentioned anything about it being a celebratory weekend). Inside was a portion of that wonderful chutney! Our bill was £20, which was well worth the quality of our meal and drinks.

Woods Brasserie
We’d originally booked for the previous night but a migraine on my part had put paid to that plan. We did call in to cancel the booking before heading home and they were very gracious in squeezing us the next night instead, even though they were full. It meant we were seated upstairs by a large group table, though they weren’t too loud or disruptive and we had a view out over the bay from the window. During our meal we were looked after by friendly and professional staff who checked regularly that we were OK for drinks etc. My starter of scallops, confit of pork belly and cauliflower puree was absolutely out of this world. Pete even asked me if they’d given me a vibrating chair, so rapturous was my response! The scallop was sweet and soft, the generous piece of pork belly was so soft it melted in the mouth but was topped by skin that was at the same time crunch and chewy; just perfect. I could have eaten the same thing as starter, main and dessert but as I’d already ordered a salmon dish it was too late to switch! My main was a fillet of salmon on top of wilted spinach within a pool of shellfish chowder. Clams, mussels and root vegetables sat in a thin white soup. On top of the salmon was a langoustine, it’s beady eyes watching me as I ate! Pete had a spiced carrot and coriander soup followed by a very nice battered fish and chips with a subtly minted pea puree. Yes, Harry Ramsden’s was just next-door but I’ll bet this was far, far nicer. For dessert I had a fabulous Eton Mess, very good cream with robustly flavoured strawberries and raspberries and crunchy meringue. Pete had a rhubarb crème brulee which he deemed excellent. Both the service and food were excellent and I’d happily recommend Woods to anyone looking for good brasserie cuisine in an elegant venue.

Birthday Potterings + Restaurant Review: Maze, London

Yesterday was my birthday (and my sister’s too).

Lazy waking to kisses and cards from Pete and calls from sister. No plans for the morning, just catching up on some fun stuff such as helping my dad with the itinerary for the trip he and ma are making to Kenya next year (I do love planning trips), packing up and posting a photographic print sale, catching up on a little web surfing and starting to write up a review of the weekend trip to Cardiff. Oh and a lovely lunch at my local Italian, La Lotta, looked after by the lovely Bob and Eva.

In the afternoon I headed into Bloomsbury to meet a friend who shares my birthday. She’d read recommendations of an elegant cafe near her college where we enjoyed extremely good Valrhona hot chocolate and outrageously huge meringues.

Satiated, my friend headed off to class and I hopped on the tube to China Town where I enjoyed a relaxing massage in a China Town beauty salon. On this occasion I was treated by Emi, a slip of a girl from Japan who applied a little basic stretching and massage before hopping up onto my back with both feet. She used her full body weight (which was just heavy enough) to perform some very welcome stretching, pushing and manipulation before jumping back down and moving on to a regular oil-based deep-tissue massage of back, neck and shoulders. Oh, and feet too, that was good.

Feeling relaxed I splashed out on a black cab to Maze, one of the Gordon Ramsay stable of restaurants, run by head chef Jason Atherton. I sat in the bar with a mojito and my book until my sister arrived and we headed to our table. (For anyone left who doesn’t know, my sister is exactly 3 years and 5 minutes younger than me, yes, yes we do share the same birthday without being twins, how extraordinary! 😉

We opted for the Tasting Menu which was the reason (along with hearty recommendations from foodie friends) that I picked Maze: unlike most of the GR restaurants, the tasting menu isn’t a set list of about 7 courses but a menu of smaller dishes from which each guest is encouraged to pick 2 starters, 2 mains and 2 desserts. Price-wise, this comes to slightly less than the set tasting menus in the other restaurants and yet gives you a selection tailored to your own tastes!

The good thing is that sister and I have very similar tastes indeed so we picked 4 different starters, mains and desserts and shared all 12 dishes between us. The staff are clearly geared up for this judging by the way they present the dishes and crockery.

The food was absolutely amazing! We had:
Pressed marinated foie gras, Lincolnshire smoked eel, baked potato foam and dill
Cornish crab mayonnaise with avocado, sweet corn sorbet and Oscietra caviar
Roasted sea scallops, cauliflower puree, Muscatel vinegar dressing
Slow roasted prawns with butternut squash puree, rye croutons, crab bisque and vanilla oil
Roast rack of lamb, pea puree, marinated turnip and lamb navarin
Rare breed Sussex pork ‘Head to Toe’, apple puree and spiced lentils
Roasted squab, Peking leg, marinated turnip and date sauce
Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento puree and squid paint
Madagascan vanilla rice pudding, raspberry and lemon thyme jam, mascarpone and pecan ice cream
Pineapple carpaccio, coconut sorbet, seaweed croquette and Malibu lime jelly
Chocolate moelleux, pistachio sabayon with milk and honey ice cream
Coconut panna cotta with black olive caramel, white chocolate granite

There was no dish we didn’t think was fantastic, though neither of us liked the tiny, deep-fried bite of pig’s trotter that was a very small element of the rare breed Sussex pork dish.

Our favourites were:
All the starters were divine. My sister especially loved the foie gras, I really loved the scallops and the butternut squash puree that came with the prawns.
The mains were also all excellent but the pork and the squab/ peking leg were particularly delicious. Then again the lamb rack was so tender too, and the navarin stew so flavoursome!
Of the desserts the clear winner was the rice pudding, though again, all were good. My sister’s second choice was the panna cotta. Mine would be the pistachio sabayon that came with the moelleux (which was also very good).

By the end of the mains we were feeling satiated, by the end of the puddings, we were definitely feeling full.

And yet, when the bill came, we received some lollipop ice-creams, some “olives” in a slimline kilner-style jar and some chocolates and sweets on a tray. The ice-cream and the white sweets on the chocolate tray were the only two things I found actively unpleasant during the meal (I actually had to vigorously wash my mouth out straight away). I figured the “olives” couldn’t really be olives, even though they were, from the smell, clearly sitting in olive oil. They turned out to be marzipan, though I’d have preferred them without the strongly flavoured olive oil which I ended up draining and wiping off as much as possible.

Just when I thought they’d forgotten (or were simply unable to accommodate) my request (made on booking) for a brief tour of the kitchens the staff arrived with yet another dessert for each of us, a wonderful chocolate mousse cake, complete with gold foil, a burning candle and Happy Birthday piped onto each glass plate with chocolate! They said, if it wasn’t too late (about 11.30 pm), they’d be happy to show us into the kitchen once we’d finished.

We managed a few bites of the extra dessert (if I’d been somewhere less refined I’d probably have asked if I could take the rest home!), settled the bill and headed into the kitchen. Most of the areas had finished for the night and were clearing up, though a couple of departments were just plating up the last dishes to be sent out. We also saw the location of the chef’s table – I don’t think the position is very good in this kitchen as it seems to afford a view of the fish and meat counters only, though I’m sure it is still quite a show.

Our bill came to just under £180 including service and comprised £22 for our two bar drinks, £22 for my sister’s wine, £114.50 for the food and £20 for service (12.5%). Whilst it’s not the kind of money I’d drop for dinner on a regular basis I think it was very good value for the food and experience we had and I’d definitely like to visit again and would recommend it to others!

Mini Restaurant Review: Ten Ten Tei, Brewer Street, London

Last night a friend and I went to Ten Ten Tei for dinner. What a fantastic find! My friend had googled for Japanese restaurants that did more than sushi as I’d said I loved sashimi and tempura but wasn’t a fan of sushi. He’d stumbled on a listing suggesting that TTT offered the best Japanese food in London. I’d have to agree!

We ordered a mixed plate of sashimi, prawn tempura, some side orders of grilled aubergine with soya bean paste, grilled smelt, deep fried lemon sole, chicken yakitori, gyoza and a dish of pork and ginger and washed it all down with green tea plus some warm saki for my friend.

The food was absolutely fantastic, though the manager seemed amused at how much we ordered. The bill, including that saki and service was £53 between us.

Fantastic, fantastic place!

Weekend spoils from our back garden “allotment”

Shortly after getting home from Wales on Friday we checked out our plants in garden and greenhouse. All had been kindly watered by our neighbour John. We found the first three ripe tomatoes on one of the three tomato plants in the greenhouse and ate them surrounded by that wonderful smell of tomato plants!

Every meal bar one this weekend included produce from our garden.

For Saturday lunch we had scrambled eggs on toast with finely diced raw red onion sprinkled over. Pete pulled about 3 bulbs which were all quite small but we’re hoping those we’ve left in will be much larger.
We also harvested the first two green peppers (which weighed in at 156 grams between them), roasted them with olive oil and had them with some ragu and pasta on Sunday evening.

And we had our home-grown spuds with our dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings. These were Red Duke of York variety.

The yield from 12 or 13 Red Duke of York plants was only 6.5 kilos in total which is a bit disappointing compared to the yield from last year’s Edzell Blues (which we’ve also enjoyed some of this year having some rogue plants pop up from tubers we obviously failed to harvest last year) although a few of the individual potatoes were much larger. I am hoping for more from our main crop which are still in the ground.

The sweetcorn had finally had a growth spurt and is finally showing the tufty flower bits at the top that mean cobs are being created. Judging from the foliage the carrots are growing well too. Leeks are looking great. Oh and my chocolate peppermint plant is doing well too. I took some cuttings from it just before we left for Wales and shoved them directly into the soil in small windowsill pots. They have taken root and tripled in size so I’d better find a recipe for mint sauce ASAP!

“Picnics? Bah! Humbug” I don’t think so!

The author of this post in the Guardian’s Word of Mouth food blog posits that picnics are a disappointment.

I’m afraid I had to disagree, not to mention provide a comparison to the Indian take on eating outdoors. Here’s what I posted as a comment to that article:

“Ha! If you think the Brits have odd ideas about eating outside you should try an Indian-style picnic. Born here to parents who emigrated from India I’ve experienced many of these strange outdoor meals, both in India and here in the UK.

The problem boils down to the fact that Indians haven’t quite cottoned on to the idea of making different dishes for picnics to those they make and eat for regular hot meals indoors. This results in a desperate attempt to keep various curries and freshly cooked breads warm at the same time as keeping cold drinks cold. Of course, that never quite works. And, although Indian Indians are adept at eating such dishes with their fingers, I (and most non-Indian Brits too) just can’t master it!

But a good old British picnic? Bring it on! Whether it’s a supermarket dash of sarnies, sausage rolls, crisps and cakes or a more elegant, home-cooked affair with home-made pies, quiches and scotch eggs, wonderful salads (take the dressing in a separate container and there are no soggy salads to be seen), freshly-baked cakes and fresh fruit for dessert, I’m happy!

Of course, there are always the downsides of ants, wasps, rain and dog poo to contend with but a bit of careful planning in terms of location and weather forecasts should help avoid those!

Now, if the summer ever comes back, where did I put my picnic hamper and coolboxes?”

Gordon Ramsay let me down!

I’ve been meaning to try a “proper” ragu recipe for ages, especially with the regular threads that pop about such recipes on a food chat board I visit.

Yesterday I looked through the recipes recommended there and also googled and narrowed it down to two recipe choices:

Gordon Ramsay’s Slow-braised ragù Bolognese

fxcuisine’s Serious Ragù Bolognese

Although I’d originally wanted to try one that includes milk (which is said to tenderise the meat) I settled on Gordon Ramsay’s version because I didn’t really want to be left with most of a bottle of dry white wine.

I followed the recipe very carefully (the only ommission being celery which I absolutely detest) and was hopeful it would come out well.

Unfortunately, when it came to the last hour in the oven (during which the instructions are to take it out every 15 minutes and give it a stir), I realised there was no way the liquid was going to reduce, as promised, to a “rich, thick sauce, and very little liquid remaining”.

I wacked the heat up for the last 15 minutes but it was still pretty wet with lots of sauce. Fairly thick, at least, but not, I’m sure, as intended.

And the overwhelming flavour was of red wine! I could taste the pancetta and the chicken livers did add depth of flavour and I also liked the step of whizzing down the cooked onions, garlic and carrots and mixing with the passata. But there was far too strong a red wine flavour, reminiscent of a poorly executed boeuf bourguignon.

I don’t know if any of my LJ friends are big ragu fans and have any experience of recipes like either of the ones above or perhaps their own special recipe to share? Also, if you have any thoughts on why it didn’t come out well, please let me know. Ta

PS I couldn’t leave it for longer to reduce further as it was already a bit late for dinner and Pete wasn’t feeling well and needed an early night.

PPS I have more than half leftover which I’ve popped into the freezer. When I get it back out I’ll reduce it down further. If it still tastes too much of red wine I’ll maybe throw in some stock or tomatoes or creme fraiche or something!!!

A free 1274 grams of Edzell Blue potatoes!

Last year the variety of potatoes we grew was Edzell Blue. We must have left one or two tiny spuds unharvested as we’ve been watching with glee as some rather large and verdant potato foliage emerged in last year’s potato location.

Pete harvested them today and we have 1274 grams of beautiful purple-skinned potatoes! We’ll have a portion for dinner served with some lovely fresh “chocolate mint” leaves from a plant I recently bought from a garden centre.

Yay! First home-grown produce of 2008 for dinner!

Tonight we ate our first home-grown produce of 2008 – a lovely small yellow courgette. We just had a simple salad (having eaten a big lunch) with cos lettuce, baby plum tomatoes, sliced dry-fried red pepper and a “dressing” which was actually just the extra low fat creme fraiche with some french mustard mixed in. The courgette was just sliced in half along it’s length and also dry-fried.

So sweet and tender.

Nothing like picking something from your own garden and eating it less than an hour later!

We’ve steadily been increasing the amount we’ve grown over the past few years and as now the shiny new greenhouse is finished we’re off and running! My mum gave me two small courgette plants as she’d ended up with quite a few from her seedlings which is just as well as the seedlings we planted this year simply didn’t germinate at all! Also in the greenhouse are three tomato plants (different varieties), two pepper plants (doing OK but not great) and an aubergine plant (struggling). And seedlings for carrots and sweetcorn that need to be planted out. Outside we’ve got garlic, red onion, leeks (very tiny still) and the first earlies. We also have a large plant from one of last year’s spuds we managed to leave in the ground. The maincrop spuds are loooong overdue to be planted so we’ll try and do on Sunday.

Restaurant Review: Silk restaurant, Great Marlborough St, London

A friend and I met for dinner at Silk this evening.

I picked it (only this morning) because I was intrigued by the idea of Indian Thai fusion, had read some good reviews about both the food and the service, had also read that the setting itself was very nice and saw that it happened to have a toptable offer on at the moment.

It’s located within the Kempinski Hotel (which is diagonally opposite Liberty and opposite the top end of Carnaby Street). The room itself used to be the Number One Court and is small but rather grand. The vaulted glass ceiling, far, far above the diners, lets in lots of light which means the very high, oak-panelled walls don’t seem as imposing as they otherwise might. The judge’s bench, dock and witness stand are still present which results in tables on different levels. And there can’t be more than 25 covers in the whole room.

The menu is ostensibly derived from the Silk Road routes across Asia to Europe though it’s essentially modern Indian with a Thai influence.

As a hotel restaurant it’s not busy and definitely not buzzing but it’s calm and attractive and perfect for a foodie dinner date.

After ordering we were served with an amuse bouche. I didn’t catch the name but imagine, if you will, small rectangular crispy pastry sheets (like that Italian ‘carta da musica’) studded with little seeds. With this came two condiments, one a raisin or fig chutney of some kind and the other a pickled grated carrot thing.

After that we were given another complimentary course – a small glass of fruit juice flavoured with galangal. Refreshing.

For starters we ordered two and shared. The first dish was scottish roe deer steaks, beautifully spiced, unbelievably tender, cooked perfectly medium-rare, served with a small asian salad. The second was a mixed platter with three items – a kind of breadcrumbed and deep-fried vegetable burger type thing with fig chutney beneath and a lovely coriander sauce on top, a large, plump and sweet scallop and a small artichoke heart with a pool of what I think was a kiwi sauce and a foam the flavour of which was incredible but which has slipped my mind now, I’m afraid and then a tender and subtly flavoured piece of chicken wrapped inside a leaf to keep it moist as it was cooked, served with some light chilli sauce.

For our mains we both chose the duckling which I think had a tamarind marinade or glaze. Just beautiful in terms of flavour and cooking. A generous portion too. And I loved the minutely diced and gorgeously spiced scottish pumpkin that came with it not to mention the unusual but successful pistachio sauce. With the duck we shared a side of pak choi and an assorted serving of breads. In the menu it listed the breads as naan, stuffed kulchi and mint parantha so when the dish came with only the first two in it (they were great at explaining what was on the plates as each dish was served) I expressed (very) mild surprise/ disappointment that there was no mint parantha included as that had been what caught my eye. Some minutes later a second dish appeared with mint paranthas! The stuffed kulchi was my favourite as it was soft and crispy at the same time and contained paper-thin slices of spring onion and red onion. Yum!

I bet you can’t believe that I had space for dessert but I had to try the banana tempura with rum baba and smoked milk chocolate soup! The banana was nice – served hot and freshly fried – though nothing special. The rum baba was too sweet even for me and was left. The (cold) smoked milk chocolate soup was really rather interesting. I loved it but my friend wasn’t convinced. And, on asking about it, we learned that it really is smoked – the chef passes smoke through the liquid though I couldn’t establish whether it was wood smoke, tea smoke or what. Really rather better than it sounds.

As if we had any more space, they brought out a generous dish of hand-made fruit jellies and chocolates both of which were superb.

Throughout our meal service was excellent – attentive without being intrusive, warm and friendly, helpful, knowledgable about the food and cooking and proud of the restaurant itself. We were even given a brief explanation of the room’s history after we were served our drinks.

Be warned that drinks are expensive, especially the wine list which really doesn’t have many reasonably priced options. And, without the toptable offer, the bill really would have been pretty hefty. Even with the offer, it still was. Oh and the menu is certainly not extensive, though I like that. It says to me that the chef is focused on getting a limited number of dishes right rather than dividing his attention between too many dishes to do justice to any of them.

But certainly, both of us enjoyed the meal, service and environment hugely and would go again.

Silk on Urbanspoon