Should bloggers accept freebies in exchange for reviews?

This is question being discussed on many a UK food blog at the moment and it looks like most of us are in agreement – yes to freebies with a number of provisos:-

* Free products or services do not guarantee a positive review; this should be made clear to the person/ organisation providing the freebie.
* The blogger should disclose that they received the product or service for free in the resulting blog post.
* The blogger should do their best to assess and write about the product or service as objectively as possible.

To that, I add the following:-

* Rather than accepting freebies indiscriminately, it is best to stick to products and services that the blogger would genuinely consider purchasing and which fit well with the everyday content of their blog.

Abel & Cole
Abel & Cole‘s PR people have been busy bees indeed having recently approached a broad assortment of UK food bloggers asking whether we’d like to review Abel & Cole products. Many of you will no doubt have read several of the resulting blog posts already.

Certainly, Pete and I are the target audience for such a scheme to have organic food produce delivered directly to our door. Only recently we purchased a box of organic meats from The Well Hung Meat Company and are planning to trial other similar suppliers before deciding which one, if any, to place an ongoing order with. Infact, we’re so much the target audience that we were long term paying customers in the past. We stopped buying from Abel & Cole because of repeated quality issues with the produce we received.

I explained this to the PR and said that, provided A & C were ok with my having been a customer before, I’d be willing to receive fruit and veg, to assess whether the quality issues we experienced previously are a thing of the past. But that I’d be far more interested in trialling their free-range and organic meat products, given how this fits into what I’m exploring at the moment.

Back when we first ordered a veg box, several years ago, there weren’t that many companies delivering such produce to London addresses. For us, one of the things that drew us to A &C’s over their competitors, was the flexibility of their Dislikes list. Instead of being able to list only 2 or 3 things we didn’t want to receive, A & C allowed us to provide a list of up to 20 things not to send. On the surface this sounds like a lot but their full list numbers in the hundreds which puts a mere 20 blocks into perspective. So I logged in with the new ID and password provided. The interface has improved since I was a paying customer and it’s even easier to specify items you don’t want to receive (for the next order only or ever) and even what you particularly like and would be happy to receive often.

I also provided information on where the box could be left if we were not home, together with a comment that at least one of is working from home most days, so please ring the bell.

The first black mark came when we discovered the box had been delivered on Friday morning without ringing the bell and left in the specified place in our side alley. With four people in the house, two of whom were awake pretty early, not to mention one of the loudest bell ringers known to man, this was disappointing.

Still, I was excited to see what we’d been sent. Safe in the cool embrace of a polystyrene box and nestled within ice packs was my free-range chicken with giblets. Weighing in at 1.9 kilos, 300 grams over the specified weight, the meat appeared dense and nicely coloured and went straight into the fridge to be cooked over the weekend.

My chicken!

As it happened, the contents of the last week’s medium mixed organic fruit & veg box corresponded with a number of items on my dislike list so there were a few swap outs.

Altogether we have: apples, carrots, green cabbage, jersey royal potatoes, a punnet of nectarines, spring onions, a mango, mushrooms and two large bags of spinach.

The fruit seems to be in good condition, assuming the mango and the nectarines ripen properly. The apples feel a touch softer than I’d like, but at least they aren’t wrinkly, as occured in the past.

For some reason, I got two huge portions of spinach, which, given the aged yellowing appearance of a few of the leaves, is probably going to lead to wastage. The leaves are picked much larger than I prefer too – to the extent that I didn’t even recognise them as spinach until I checked the contents list on the side of the box!

The potatoes, mushrooms and spring onions looked fine.

The worst items in the box were the carrots. These were so old they were rubbery. One was already broken in half and the rest I could bend almost double without snapping! Comparing this with a carrot we pulled up from our garden the same day, these were clearly not remotely fresh, nor had they been well stored.

Slow Cooker Chicken
I posted about borrowing my mum’s slow cooker before deciding whether to buy our own. Our greatest success came with cooking a whole chicken over several hours. What I particularly liked, as well as the succulence of the meat, was the large quantity of excellent stock and leftover meat, which we used for a number of additional meals. As mum’s slow cooker has long since been returned, we finally bought our own on Saturday, ready to cook the chicken on Sunday.

As the carrots were so unappealing, I decided to relegate them to stock making duties – scrubbed and chopped, with manky bits discarded, they went into the bottom of the pot. With them I threw in a small onion, peeled and quartered, a few bay leaves and then the chicken itself. (Giblets put aside in the fridge). Over this I poured water and half a bottle of white wine. After an hour and a half on high, I turned the slow cooker down to low for the next 5 hours.

In the slow cooker

Cooked this way, the chicken becomes so incredibly soft and tender that, no matter how careful you are, it disintegrates as you lift it out of the pot. Pete plonked the resulting pieces into a large dish and I picked and pulled every last scrap of meat away from the carcass while he sieved the utterly delicious stock into a container for the freezer. The meat was enough for four portions (for the two of us) of which one was set aside for dinner that evening, another for the next evening and the rest into the freezer as well.

Given the heat of the day (not to mention a large lunch at our local Italian) we decided to keep it light. For dinner we made a simple salad, similar to one I posted about last week. Chopped raw sugarsnaps, thinly sliced red onion, halved cherry tomatoes and coriander leaves with the addition of the soft, shredded chicken meat. All mixed with a simple dressing of olive oil, cider vinegar and honey. Delicious!

The finished chicken salad

And for dessert, while Pete had some fresh fruit, I went for a savoury of fried chicken heart and chicken liver. Absolutely delicious!

Using the same carrots and onions, I threw in the chicken carcass and skin plus the bird’s neck and covered with more water and the rest of the bottle of white wine. Left to cook overnight, a second stock was produced. Before I tried this, I would have been convinced that the second stock would be weak and insipid but, having done this three times now, I can assure you that it’s still full of flavour.

We’ll be using this second stock, some of the chicken meat and the spring onions from the box to make a simple, delicious and filling risotto for our Monday night dinner.

Thoughts
So far, it’s top marks on the quality of their meat, but a detention for the quality of some of the fruit and veg. I’ll report on the risotto later in the week and let you know how the rest of the fruit and veg are soon.

 

One for Me… One for You…

27 Jun 2009  Comments Off
Jun 272009
 

Regular readers may remember my delight at attending the launch evening for Artisan du Chocolat’s new Westbourne Grove store. As well as treating myself to a box of 30 delicious Couture Collection chocolates I was also given an additional box of 12 as a parting gift. It didn’t take me long to work my way through the majority of those 42 squares of goodness.

Read on for my review of the chocolates and don’t miss the fantastic competition to win your own box of Artisan du Chocolat goodness!

Kavey Eats Chocolate!

KEY: (x) Not keen (o) Nice (*) Special (**) Phenomenal!

Orange (*)
This one reminded me of an orange cream, the kind you find in chocolate box selections. But that’s no bad thing as it was elevated to another level by use of good quality dark chocolate and a clean orange flavour.

Lumi (x)
Like the Jasmine, the limey flavour of lumi was too subtle for me to detect and the ganache too sweet for me to enjoy as a general chocolate.

Lemon & Thyme (*)
The thyme came through more strongly than the lemon giving this chocolate a strangely savoury flavour. Quite unusual and I really liked it.

Banana & Thyme (**)
The banana hit me first and then my tongue detected a hint of thyme moments later. Less savoury than the Lemon & Thyme combination but just as unusual.

Honey (*)
A lovely strong honey flavour came through clear as a bell in the ganache. Lovely!

Jasmine Tea (x)
Like the Early Grey, I just couldn’t discern the Jasmine flavour. In this case, I found the paler ganache filling too sweet to recommend this one.

Rose (*)
The flavour of turkish delight! And since I adore turkish delight, this one worked for me!

Violet (*)
A wonderfully flowery violet flavour, tastes more natural than the flavour one more commonly encounters in cheap violet confectionary. Combines nicely with the chocolate.

Earl Grey
Although I enjoyed the rich, velvety smooth, intense chocolate I couldn’t detect the early grey tea flavour. I’d class this one as a good general truffly chocolate rather than a flavoured one.

Lapsang Souchong (*)
This one really packed a punch when it came to smokiness which was pretty unique. More woody than tea to me but I rather liked it.

Verbena (**)
The lemony citrus flavour crashed through and the combination of sweet and sharp was fabulous!

Moroccan Mint (*)
Although I enjoyed this chocolate, the mint tasted of peppermint essence rather than fresh mint. Clean, refreshing and tasty though I prefer Gorvett & Stone’s mint truffles with their fresh herby flavour.

Basil & Lime (o)
The hint of basil was completely overwhelmed by lime. As a lime chocolate it was great but for basil, I’d recommend Paul A Young’s fresh basil truffles.

Lavender (o)
A lovely dark ganache with a slightly too subtle lavender flavour. I could only just discern it and that may have been because I was looking for it. That said, the chocolate itself was so good I couldn’t fail to enjoy this one.

Tobacco (**)
Having read that this one was developed in response to a request from Heston Blumenthal, I was intrigued before I even tasted it. And, even though I am an ex-smoker, I had no idea what to expect. What I got was a fabulous and unfamiliar sweet flavour followed by a real kick at the back of the throat, akin to chilli heat but not quite the same. An interesting aftertaste came through once the chocolate had gone and I was sucking every last molecule of flavour. Unique, fascinating, tasty and packed a kick. What more could one ask for?

Sea Salted Caramel (o)
A soft fudgey interior with a nice flavour, though not as salty as Artisan du Chocolat’s famous liquid salted caramels, which is a shame as I love those! But definitely a great choice for fans of fudge.

Coffee & Star Anise (x)
I’m very likely biased by my dislike of aniseed but for me, any coffee taste that might have been present was masked by the strong anise flavours. Aniseed fans would love this.

Ginger (*)
A great fresh ginger taste (rather than the crystallised ginger taste that’s more common in confectionary). Refreshing though would like to taste some of ginger’s fiery heat coming through.

Green Cardamom (**)
At first the cardamom flavour seemed too subtle but suddenly broke through the chocolate and tingled my tastebuds. I think cardamom and chocolate is a great combination. If you like this, you’ll probably also like Kshocolat’s orange and cardamom chocolate bar.

Black Cardamom (x)
Given that black cardamom is usually a stronger, rougher flavour I expected this one to come through as clearly as it’s more delicate green relation. Sadly, I couldn’t much taste it but enjoyed this as a good general choocolate.

Coriander Praline (**)
A fantastic praline chocolate with a smooth cocoa shell surroudning a wonderfully light and crunchy praline with chewy bit that stick dissolutely to your teeth, taking you back to childhood delights! One of my favourites.

House praline (**)
Clearly I’m rather a big fan of the pralines. This one was also fantastic with the characteristic light texture combining crunchy and chewy in perfect balance.

Feuillantine (**)
This is one of the chocolates I tried in the shop, on the opening night, and I absolutely loved it. As with the two pralines I describe above, a fantastic texture combination and wonderful taste. Just perfect!

There were also several flavours that were not available on the day of my visit that are very intriguing – I’ll have to wait until my next visit to taste (and feedback on) flavours such as Bramley Apple, Red Wine, Tonka, Marzipan, Marzipan & Rosemary, Sesame, Fig & Walnut Nougat and Raspberry Nougat.

Want to try Artisan du Chocolat’s Couture Collection for yourself?

I’m delighted to be able to offer a box of 12 Couture Collection chocolates to one lucky reader of Kavey Eats! And to make sure you get to enjoy my personal favourites, your box will contain two each of Banana & Thyme, Tobacco, Green Cardamom, Coriander Praline, Feuillantine and Verbena.*

*If any of these are unavailable on the day your box is assembled Artisan du Chocolat will substitute others from the Couture Collection.

To enter this fantastic competition, just leave a comment at the end of this post before midnight July 14th. Please include your name and email address (so I can contact the winner for their postal address). This competition is open to UK-based readers only.

A winner will be selected randomly from all comments received by the deadline. The prize will be sent out by Artisan du Chocolat directly to the winner.

 

I’m not sure whether I should be feeling excited, optimistic and confident or panicked, depressed and terrified.

Along with several of my fellow UK food bloggers, I’ve signed up to host a stall at the Covent Garden Real Food Market. This market is selling food and drink delights to locals and tourists alike, every Thursday through to the 24th September. My date is the 27th August!

This collaboration between bloggers and market organisers is the brainchild of Julia Parsons, author of renowned A Slice of Cherry Pie and founder of the UK Food Bloggers Association.

Chris Dreyfus from More Tea Vicar has set a high standard for the rest of us to follow. Read the Independent’s article on the stall, here.

And on the 27th August, just before the busiest bank holiday weekend of the year, it’s my turn!

Wish me luck!

 
Eating our first home-grown sugarsnap pea seconds after picking it was quite a thrill. That was two weeks ago and we harvested about 12 pods and munched our way through them as we picked. A week later, just before leaving for France, we picked another 15 or so. They never made it into the house either! Delicious, sweet, crunchy and full of flavour, peas eaten just after picking are a world away from those you buy in the shops. Even to those of us who’ve been growing our own vegetables for several years, they are a revelation!

So when we got back from France on Saturday night I rushed outside to see how our plot was doing. Thanks to our neighbours, who kindly performed watering duties, everything was looking vigorous and healthy and there were dozens of sugarsnaps hanging heavily from the plants.

On Sunday I went out and harvested them, noticing eagerly that the regular pea plants next to them are now covered in flowers and should be producing fruit soon. This bowl of sugarsnaps actually made it into the kitchen (and weighed in at a satisfying 290 grams).

I decided to make them into a simple salad for lunch and this is what I came up with:

Crunchy Sugarsnap Salad

Ingredients
Raw sugarsnap peas, chopped
Raw red onion, finely sliced and separated into strands
Cherry tomatoes, halved
Coriander leaves
Home-made dressing (extra virgin olive oil, cider vinegar and honey to taste)

Method

    • Prepare ingredients just before you want to serve the salad.

 

  • Mix well in large bowl to evenly coat all ingredients in dressing.

 

This made an absolutely delicious, filling and healthy lunch, all the more satisfying for being based on an ingredient we grew ourselves.

Jun 252009
 

I am a travel snob, I admit it.

I adore France but, in most of our many trips there over the years, I have avoided Brittany; put off by it’s reputation as the Chianti of France – Brittanyshire, as it were. Instead I’ve spent many, many happy trips exploring regions including Limousin, Poitou-Charentes, Champagne, Picardie, Burgundy (Bourgogne), Aquitaine, Auvergne and, my favourites, Centre & Pays de La Loire. And of course, Paris, but I that’s almost a separate country, isn’t it? ;) These regions are by no means undiscovered by us canny Brits but we haven’ t reached critical mass and I’ve encountered and interacted predominantly with French people. And that’s the crux of my snobbiness; I don’t just visit France for nice weather and good food (though the latter is, of course, rather important to a glutton like me) but for France itself – it’s people and their culture/ way of life.

So when a friend invited Pete and I to spend a week staying with her (and a few other friends) in her parents’ holiday home in a tiny hamlet near La Roche Bernard in Morbihan, on the southern coast of Brittany, I confess that I hesitated a few seconds before overcoming my prejudiced snobbiness and shouting out a loud “Yes, please!”

Macarons on sale in Guerande shop window


And, as you could no doubt have predicted, we had a marvellous time! I can’t say Brittany equalled my very favourite areas (thus far) but it did offer a charming holiday base and we enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing week. And it wasn’t overrun with “us lot” either!

As we took our own car and crossed via the Eurotunnel, I booked an overnight at the lovely Chateau de Monhoudou on our way down to Brittany. We were upgraded to a beautiful blue room with two bathrooms (one with jacuzzi bath and big window out over the grounds and the other a tiled wetroom shower in the corner turret). We ate dinner in the chateau that night – all very pleasant but the one dish that blew me away was the Vicomtesse’s h0me-made walnut tart with rum. She kindly shared her recipe and I’ll be blogging it here in due course!

Chateau de Monhoudou

Food wise we cooked several evenings meals in the house. We had a great BBQ on the patio on which we cooked fresh fish, meat and veg from local markets and supermarkets. Fresh sardines were fabulous, so too were the wonderful merguez sausages we couldn’t resist having more than once plus various burgers and chops. Courgettes and peppers were lovely on the BBQ too. We also did meals such as a French chicken, mushroom, shallots, creme fraiche and beer casserole type thing and a roast beef dinner too. Oh and lots of baking – one of the guys is also into his baking so between us we made cookies, cakes and macaroons not to mention vast quantities of banoffee (and a little appoffee variation). I also gorged on beautifully ripe pêches plates (flat peaches). Oh and we bought lots of cheese which we enjoyed during each meal in the house, though I was surprised at how little cheese is produced locally given their fantastic dairy herds. One cheese I’d not had before but really liked was Normanville, made in the Pays d’Auge area of Normandy.



Piriac market



Market in La Roche-Bernard


We also ate a few meals out during the week. Pete and I each had a savoury galette at Hotel Crêperie Roc Maria in Guerande before heading to Le Croisic for a dessert crêpe at Crêperie Le Relais Du Duc De L’Aiguillon (who, according to their menu, use only organic flour for their crêpes/ galettes). Our dessert choices here were particularly good – mine filled with cooked banana and a rich dark chocolate sauce and Pete’s with a lemon cream. All 6 of us had savoury and sweet options at a creperie in La Roche Bernard though I won’t name that one – the two of us who picked the (tasty) galettes with boudin noir and pommes caramelise had severe stomach upsets that afternoon/ evening and one of the others had a milder upset too.

Crêperie goodness (in Geurande and Le Croisic)


All 6 of us enjoyed a pleasant meal at a restaurant I thought was called La Panoramique but which the receipt lists as Le Relais de La Roche. It’s situated by the tall bridge across from from La Roche Bernard and enjoys stunning views down over the harbour full of moored yachts, the cafes and restaurants on the harbourside, the rocks that give the town it’s name and the beautiful green countryside. Although we had a charming evening I’d rate the restaurant as good rather than excellent. My starter langoustines were overcooked resulting in overly mushy meat. The tagliatelle served with my scallop and prawn main was also very overcooked though the scallops themselves were superb. And my baked alaska (called a norwegian omelette) was so-so. Steaks enjoyed by some of the group were good but a chocolate mousse was too grainy in texture, though the taste was fine. Service was friendly and prices reasonable, at approximately 30 Euros per head.


Le Relais de La Roche


My friend’s parents had left a list of recommended restaurants, one of which was described as a pork specialist providing large portions of tasty food, popular with locals and white van drivers – and with a name like Chez Monsieur Cochon we couldn’t resist! We headed over to nearby Herbignac and, by the time we came back, we could hardly move! With most starters priced at 5 Euros and most mains at 10 Euros (with a small selection of dishes priced at roughly double) the enormous and tasty dishes here are certainly fantastic value. A number of us had the Salade Berger which consisted of chicken livers braised in red wine, lardons and salad. Others went for the leek and lardon tart – a generous slice served with salad. And the other starter ordered was a huge salad topped with goat’s cheese topped with honey and sitting on toasts. All three of these dishes were plenty large enough to be eaten on their own for lunch and were, frankly, way too big for starters! For mains we had grilled ham, an artisanal sausage with mash and marinaded belly pork. Again, portions were huge. The belly pork was delicious, cooked until the meat was beautifully soft and basted in a flavoursome marinade but two out of three of us who ordered it didn’t come close to clearing our plates. Not one of us had space for dessert though our waitress assured us that many customers do indeed manage a starter, main and dessert each! The main grill on which many of the meats are cooked opens into the restaurant so diners can watch the chef at work, if they wish. Our bill came to less than 20 Euros a head, though we didn’t have many drinks between us. One nice touch I noted was when one of our party ordered a bottle of red wine, a Cahors which was listed among 3 “house” reds priced at 10 Euros a bottle. Our waitress explained that they were out of this wine but instead of referring back to the other two house reds, offered another more expensive Cahors from the main wine menu for the same price as the house version. In the end, this place impressed me for a number of reasons: great food at great prices, genuinely friendly and helpful service with great customer service and an interesting range of pork dishes (plus a few non-pork dishes as well). It serves as a nice balance to the more refined side of French cuisine that can sometimes garner most the attention.

Pete and I ventured out exploring a little more than the rest of the gang and hence we found ourselves in Vannes for lunch one day. One particular restaurant, La Table des Gourmets, listed in the my guide book was backed up with a strong recommendation from a fellow member of an online travel board who’d shared a review of a fine meal she and her husband had enjoyed there. Unfortunately, when we got to the address provided we found a new restaurant in it’s place, Restaurant Les Remparts. The menu looked good so we decided to give it a try anyway. As well as enjoying a delicious, beautifully presented meal, we also chatted to the owner who was performing a front of house role. I’ll be posting a review of the restaurant in a separate blog post, soon.

One aspect of our visit that I did find disappointing was the lack of small, local food and drink producers open for visits, tastings and direct purchase. I was met with puzzled surprise at the three tourist offices where I asked for help on this, though one kind lady did invest some considerable time in searching (pretty unsuccessfully) for possibilities. What’s more, it was clear that this was not a request they encountered regularly, if at all. Although I quickly became aware that there are few local cheese producers, I had expected to be able to find and visit makers of Breton cider, chouchenn (a mead-like drink, based on cider), salted caramel and salted caramel sweets, local speciality cakes and biscuits… But unlike other regions in France, such producers neither open their doors on an individual basis, nor have they organised together to offer food and drink tourist routes or lists. Infact, the only such producers we came across were those selling their wares in Rochefort-sur-Terre, which was home to an impressive range of artisans selling hand-made woven baskets and bags, decorative wooden bellows, Breton cakes and biscuits, candles and paintings. We also enjoyed the opportunity to taste and buy local honeys at La Maison de l’Abeilles (the house of bees) in La Roche Bernard.

Rochefort-sur-Terre


Luckily, I still get a kick from shopping in French supermarkets and brought home such diverse goodies as basil-flavoured oil, salted caramel sweets, brioche and madeleines, flour, blackberry cream liqueur, chouchenn, sweet Breton cider, dry bubbly for my sister and some Port for my cooking ingredients cupboard, biscuits like jaffa cakes but filled with raspberry instead of orange jelly, orange tic-tacs (why do we only sell orange mixed with lime in the UK?) and a box of Mon Cheri chocolates for naughty me! With all of that and a few boxes of wine not to mention four peoples’ luggage, our poor car was very heavily laden for the voyage home indeed!

I’ll be running a competition to win a jar of Breton salted caramel sweets in a few weeks so do subscribe to my blog feed to make sure you don’t miss your chance to win!

Jun 232009
 

You know how sometimes, you experience those perfect moments of serendipity which lead to wonderful moments and new friendships? One of those moments came together for me on the first Friday of this month.

Just a few weeks before I started my blog, Pei Wang started his. In his case, he took a far deeper dive than I, embarking not just on a new hobby but a new career too. I stumbled upon teanamu just after I started Kavey Eats and, enjoying the mix of content, added it to my nascent blog roll. Pei dropped me a sweet note to thank me. He was in China at the time, expanding even further his knowledge of tea and the many traditions and customs that surround it.

He had a great visit to Hangzhou, in Anhui province, learning more about the cultivation and harvesting of tea. He also discovered the village that is the ancestral home of his mother’s family. And he gained his certification as a Tea Artisan and Tea Assessor. On returning home he invited me to visit and taste some spring 2009 green tea he’d brought back with him.

Although I have, over the past 10 years, met literally hundreds of people I have come to know online, I was still a little nervous about meeting a stranger for the first time in their home. And yet, something in our flurry of emails made me feel safe and confident and I made the trek across to Westbourne Park, just a stone’s catapult away from my destination the previous evening, for the Artisan du Chocolat opening.

With Pei’s careful directions, I had no trouble finding his beautiful home – a detached Victorian ‘chocolate box’ that used to belong to the grander house next door but now sits in it’s own little plot, fronted by a corn-blue wall and a beautiful tree spilling over it.

Through the gate, waving a quick hello at the chickens running around in their coop under the shade of the tree, I was quickly welcomed inside. Pei’s home is also the location for his tea cookery and tea appreciation workshops and it’s beautiful. The sleek, beautifully-designed open-plan kitchen merges with a chic living area decorated with beautiful tea pots and serving utensils, cookery books and tomes on tea and the assorted sourvenirs of travels in Asia.

Pei wasted no time in making a start on preparing his adaptation of the traditional French madeleine recipe (by adding powdered oolong tea to the cake mix and scattering seeds over the top). Just as he started, another friend of his arrived to enjoy the informal session. Conversation flowed freely and, despite our very different backgrounds – Pei grew up in Singapore and came to the UK in 2001 – we discovered many shared interests, particularly when it comes to food and drink. As we chatted, Pei interjected little pointers about the recipe and method, showing us each stage so we knew what to aim for. The recipe is one he shares with students attending his cookery workshop and it’s one he’s tweaked to perfection.



Before we knew it the little cakes were in the oven and his friend and I were invited to take tea in a summery little side room adjoining the kitchen. The room is a crescent shape and the outer, curving wall is built entirely from clear glass bricks, letting in lots of lovely, diffused light. Here, Pei had set up the paraphernalia of tea including a proper tea box (with tray beneath to catch discarded water and leaves), a samovar to keep the water boiling and an array of tea pots, cups and utensils. And most important of all, his treasure chest of precious teas.

I was captivated by the process of making and serving the tea, as well as the guidance on how to best hold the cup and drink and enjoy the tea. I also loved Pei’s stories about the origins and properties of the different teas and his help in describing the flavours. He also taught us about the different leaves and methods used to collect and prepare tea.

A short while later, maybe two or three teas down the road, the oven buzzer sounded telling us the cakes were ready. I took photos as Pei popped them out of the tray to cool briefly before piling them onto a plate for us to enjoy during the remainder of our tea appreciation session.



Several teas and cakes and a great deal of chatting later, it was time to head home with a new appreciation and understanding of tea, a generous selection of teas to enjoy at home and, most important of all, a new and wonderful friendship to take into the future.

Jun 142009
 

A few weeks ago I asked readers and friends to pose those questions they most wanted me to answer in an self-introductory blog entry. I was overwhelmed by the number and variety of questions and it’s taken me quite a while to pen my (sometimes long and rambling) answers. This first set of questions takes me down memory lane to my childhood. In coming weeks I’ll also post answers to questions about food and travelling, current likes and dislikes and more.

Scribbler: What is your earliest food memory?
My earliest memory is from when I was about 1 and a half years old. It’s not about food exactly but since it features a mortar and pestle, I reckon it’s close enough! When I was a small baby, we moved to India for about a year – apparently hindi was my first spoken language, though I can’t speak it now. We spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents.

I remember sitting on the ground outside; my grandfather was seated behind me, cross-legged. The visuals of the memory show me only his arms reaching around me to the items infront of me; I can’t see his face or body but I know in my mind that they are his arms. He is making a pair of mortar and pestles from clay, one large one and one smaller one.

People tell me that I can’t possibly have a memory from such a young age. Firstly, it’s more what I’d describe as a memory fragment – a little scene with a small area of focus. I remember only what I describe above – a visual sccene lasting a few moments and the certainty of who I’m with. There is no sound in the memory nor any knowledge or image of where we are, what else is around us, who else might be there. Often, people insist that it must be a false memory, based on a scene described to me by someone else. But I remember very clearly the first time I related this memory to my mother. She was shocked, as it was not a story she knew (or had told me). She asked her siblings and mother, they didn’t recall any of this either. But they did confirm that my grandfather made his own mortar and pestles and that he usually had a large one and small one in the kitchen. He died when I was just two years old, so I feel very privileged to have this direct memory of him.

Oddly enough, my first proper food memory is from India too – after we returned to the UK we returned to visit family for a couple of weeks every couple of years. Again, I can’t remember whose house we were visiting nor much about the house or garden as a whole. What I remember is being perched up in the branches of a guava tree, with my cousins, feasting on guava fruits picked fresh from the tree.

And for an unlikely – some would even say unbelievable – anecdote, this one passed down from my mum: apparently, the first time I was fed chocolate, I spat it out in disgust! Can you imagine?!

Dunlurkin: I imagine that you grew up eating mostly Indian food, but I know that you now eat a very wide range of foods. When and how did you make the transition?

Dena: Having just read on the food board about school dinners I was wondering how you felt when you first went to school. Coming from a house where spicy, flavourful food cooked by Mamta was the norm, it must have been a tremendous culture shock to be faced with the bland meals provided at most schools. How did you cope?

Actually, unlike many children of Indian first-generation immigrants, I didn’t grow up eating mostly Indian food at all. Instead, let me tell you about my childhood as it relates to food.

Any explanation of the role food played in my childhood must start with a brief story about my parents. My mum and dad came to London from India back in the 1960s. Both were medical doctors working within the ranks of the NHS. They grew up in vegetarian households and although my dad had already eaten meat before he moved to the UK, mum hadn’t. However, being a vegetarian wasn’t very easy in the UK back then, especially when most meals were taken in staff canteens. So mum started eating meat aged 26.

My sister and I were born in London in the early 1970s shortly before we moved to Luton, where we grew up. By the time I was born my parents had already come to enjoy British food.

Even though, in India, most middle-class families have staff (I hate the term servants as this does not accurately reflect the situation in my family in India), my mum’s parents were ahead of their time when they insisted that not only their daughters but their sons too learn how to cook for themselves. So mum already knew how to cook Indian vegetarian food. Throughout my childhood she taught herself not only how to cook Indian meat dishes (and a much wider range of vegetarian ones too) but also how to cook cuisine from all around the world.

We ate Indian food about twice a week. The rest of the time we’d have roast dinners, casseroles, fish fingers, jacket potatoes and a range of normal British fayre. And we’d have moussaka, chilli con carne, stir fries, lasagne, burgers, pizzas and all kinds of other food from around the world.

We also went out to local restaurants from quite a young age including a wonderful local Chinese (that I continued to visit even after I left Luton, until the owners retired and it closed a few years ago) and a local Beefeater pub. My sister and I often ordered steak – the bloodier the better! I don’t know where we both got that from as mum has never really enjoyed (or ordered) red meat and my dad always insisted on burnt rather than well done (though in his old age he’s finally recognised the merits of having it medium instead).

Another thread in our childhoods was international travel. I don’t know where my parents’ love of travel came from but we certainly benefited from it. They’d always make the most of holidays to explore the world. In my younger years we more commonly travelled within the UK; I have fond memories of beach combing in Norfolk and Cornwall not to mention enjoying cream teas in sweet little West coast villages. I even remember toe-shuffling for clams and harvesting mussels from the wooden breakers on the beach and my dad cleaning them thoroughly before cooking.

Once they could afford it, we started going abroad more, initially in Europe (although we always did trips back to visit family in India every 2-3 years) and then farther afield. As a teen I was lucky enough to visit Peru, Kenya, Bolivia, Canada, Brazil and many, many states in the US including Alaska. We went to Florida regularly too as a couple of my dad’s siblings had emigrated there.

Why are the travels relevant? Because one of the aspects of travelling all of us loved (and still do) was trying dishes from the local cuisines. And mum often took it a step further, incorporating ideas into her repertoire when we returned home.

My parents are very social creatures so we were also part of a lively social life in Luton with family friends hailing from Scotland to Malaysia to Persia to India and many other places too. That gave us another avenue for trying different food – I still get jealous now when my parents are invited to our Luton Chinese friends’ home for steam boat and other delicacies! My parents would hold huge parties with guests milling around the entire downstairs of the house and out into the garden. My sister and I, plus our similarly aged friends from next door, would take on roles directing the traffic and helping serve food and drinks. (The neighbours were always invited so never any complaints about the parking!)

Mum encouraged my sister and I to cook at home, whether helping her with the family meals or making things on our own. I remember teaching myself how to make home-made bread from scratch (went through quite a long bread phase – I still remember plaiting one beautiful loaf). And I grew up in the days when schools still provided proper cookery lessons (none of this learning how to make sandwiches or assembly-job pizzas using shop-bought bases and toppings). At school I learned to make cobblers, pizzas from scratch, fruit crumbles, cauliflower cheese with a proper white sauce base and all kinds of other goodies.

My sister and I share the same birthday and, when we were younger, we’d have joint parties with fantastic cakes (mum would make the cake, cut and assemble them and ice them and decorate them to look like fairy castles, lady birds and all sorts) and home-made knickerbockerglories that we’d make ourselves and all kinds of other goodies. Even when it wasn’t for a party we liked making sweet things together and mum would mostly leave us to our devices when we made peppermint creams, coconut ice and beautifully shaped and coloured marzipan fruits!

Probably the biggest surprise to those who know me is the fact that I was a very picky eater when I was very young, to the extent that my parents worried about me not eating enough and being malnourished!

Even though I’d already been exposed to a wide range of foods my parents recount how, when I first started school, they were called in to be told I was refusing to eat lunch as I said the smell made me feel sick. The staff suggested they take me home for lunch but my parents refused – they felt (rightly) that mixing with others at lunchtime was an important part of school routine. They knew I ate a good breakfast, a nourishing snack when I got home and a good cooked dinner. And they were right! Within a fortnight I started eating everything and eventually even told my mum that she didn’t cook cabbage like they did at school. I’d developed a taste for overboiled vegetables doused in gravy!

That picky eating phase didn’t last long and I grew to love all kinds of food from a young age.

Helen Yuet Ling Pang: What’s your favourite dish that your mum made for you while you were growing up? And have you learnt how to make it yourself!

Even though we only ate Indian a couple of times a week I’d say my favourites are all Indian dishes such as mum’s lamb curry (with marrow in the bones that we would fight over and suck out with loud, satisfied slurps), home-made rotis and pooris, sheek kebabs with green chutney and home-made natural yoghurt (which had an incredible, extra-thick layer on top which we also fought over).

Luckily, my sister’s and my desire to learn how to cook these recipes is what, ultimately, lead to the creation of Mamta’s Kitchen, a website that’s now become a resource not just for my sister and I, or even our extended family, but for many people around the world. So, the answer is, yes I can now make most of mum’s wonderful dishes myself, though I’ve still not mastered rotis or pooris!

MidnightCowboy: What was your favourite school dinner

I generally liked a lot of what I ate at school but my favourite savoury dish would probably be a ridiculously cheesey cheese flan the dinner ladies at my senior school used to make. They made it in huge baking trays, each one must have been cut it into at least 16 generous slices – I always asked for one away for the edge to maximise the cheesey hit! Now I make my own quiches/ flans I have been able to recreate something similar.

Dessert wise, the same dinner ladies also made a killer chocolate tart. The chocolate topping was thick, sloppy rather than set and absolutely fantastic. Never come across anything like it since.

I also used to like rice pudding with a square of chocolate or dollop of jam in it!

Jun 082009
 

Artisan du Chocolat recently opened their new shop and chocolateria in Westbourne Grove and I was lucky enough to attend the opening night. I was definitely the proverbial child in a sweetshop, delighted by all the displays of truly beautiful chocolate around me, not to mention the chic ‘n’ sleek interior.

Arriving nice and early allowed me to grab some photos before the space became too crowded.

The orange and white theme was clean and energising, though I wondered how long the pristine white leather banquettes in the seating areas will last against the onslaught of sticky fingers and spilled drinks! Shelves and glass display cabinets show-cased the beautiful products and an active conching machine was amongst the quirky objects on display. The space itself was dominated by an enormous bespoke “plantation light” – a curved bell hanging from the ceiling, white on the outside and covered with the vivid picture of a cacao plantation on the inside.



The shop will sell the full range of Artisan du Chocolate products whilst the chocolateria menu offers a range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and fine chocolate goodies to nibble.

Smiling staff handed out a selection of bespoke chocolate-themed cocktails (created by master mixologist Nick Strangeway, who was sporting a suitably wizard-like pointy beard) whilst others proffered chocolates, ice-creams and warm chocolate fondants.



Chocolatier, Gerard Coleman and area manager, Elise Thomassin chatted to guests and made sure everyone was drinking and sampling away. Gerard’s partner (in life and in business, as they say on their website), Anne Weyn, was also present and working mostly behind the scenes to keep drinks and goodies flowing; I don’t have any photos of her.



Having not tried Artisan du Chocolat products before, I’d been online earlier and made up my mind to buy a large box of Couture collection chocolates. Luckily, I arrived early enough for the staff to put together a selection based on my preferences. I must say that £19 for 30 chocolates of this calibre, presented in such an elegant box, is a very good deal indeed and one I could not resist.

During my visit I managed to try all of the different chocolates, including the original salted caramels, orange peels in chocolate and the truly marvellous praline feuillantine plus a warm chocolate fondant which provided the perfect balance of moist but firm cake filled with warm, liquid chocolate not to mention an iced chocolate granita and a Theobrama cacao pulp Bellini combining Prosecco with the pulp of the cacao fruit.

After sampling and snapping away for an hour, I received an unexpected surprise – on leaving I was given a beautiful goodie bag. When I delved into it (once safely ensconsed in the Tube), I discovered another box of 12 chocolates, a cacao pod/ fruit and a copy of Carole Matthews’ “The Chocolate Lovers’ Club”. Thank you very much; what a fun and generous gift!



I’ll be keeping most of the chocolates to myself (and posting a review, along the lines of this one about Paul A Young chocolates) but am offering Carole Matthews’ “The Chocolate Lovers’ Club” to a (UK-based) reader. Not one but two friends gave me this book when it was published – what does that say about my image as a chocolate fiend? I enjoyed the gentle story about four chocolate-loving friends who meet regularly in a cafe called Chocolate Heaven to share laughter and tears in equal measure.

You have till the end of the month to leave a comment on this post sharing your favourite food or drink recipe for chocolate. I’ll pick and announce a winner in July. Good luck!

 

A friend suggested meeting for a quick and early dinner last Thursday evening, before she went on to a show (which I declined). Having been before, and knowing I hadn’t, she suggested we dine at Hakkasan. Several years behind the hype, I was still keen to sample the delights of one of few Asian restaurants in London to win (and keep) a Michelin star.

It seems waiting until Alan Yau sold up was not a wise decision. Whilst we had a pleasant meal, I was distinctly underwhelmed by the Hakkasan experience. Certainly, I didn’t find myself nodding in agreement and appreciation, as I have when dining at other establishments which have been similarly recognised and awarded by the famous guide.

For a start, I wasn’t blown away by the space itself. Cool and funky, modern and classy it might be, but it was so dark it was hard to see let alone appreciate details of the decor. I found myself wondering just what the intense shadows were hiding? For restaurants-cum-nightclubs or even bar-restaurants, this kind of dim lighting is probably perfect but for me, it made a high-end restaurant seem low-end and tacky. The tables in the dining area did have bright lights suspended above them but these spotlights had such a small area of focus that the dishes placed in the centre of the table, between us, were brightly lit whilst our own plates remained in shadow.

The welcome from the reception team was warm and efficient. As I arrived a few minutes early I was shown to the bar, where the welcome was distinctly cooler. But I’d heard good things about the cocktails and, after some time browsing the extensive cocktail list, I ordered myself a Lost Heaven – fresh nashi pear, Gran Centenario reposado tequila, coconut, peach, lime and guava juice. It was duly delivered (with no hint of a smile or conversation) and was as delicious as it sounds. My friend arrived a few moments later and ordered her own cocktail. She chose a Kokohana – fresh pineapple, basil leaves, coconut rum and lychee juice. It was plonked down in front of her without a word. The bar was manned by 3 male waiters, all of whom were similarly abrupt and short on words.

I was asked if I wanted to run a tab or pay for the bar drinks separately. I explained that, as we were short on time, we’d like to transfer to our dining table as soon as we could, and could they put the drinks onto the restaurant bill, please. I was surprised to be asked for my credit card – as the bar is, I believe, open only to diners, I’d expected them simply to transfer the drinks tab across to our dining one. Furthermore, I hadn’t realised, as I handed it over, that they were going to keep it rather than take an imprint. I don’t even know whether they have a bar card safe or whether cards are accessible to all restaurant staff. Certainly, given the prevalence of card fraud, I hope it’s the former. A short while later, a hostess came to lead us to our table. I asked for my credit card back and was told it would be brought to my table. It was eventually returned to me about 20 minutes later.

Our table waitress was certainly friendlier and more helpful than the bar staff, though the level of service didn’t begin to match the very professional service I’ve received in many high-end restaurants. Even though we were sharing dishes, she’d take one person’s plate away whilst the other was still eating. She’d move to take away the serving dishes before we’d finished with the contents, though we did manage to stop her doing that. When she asked if we’d like more drinks (having both finished our lovely cocktails), I answered first and we had to stop her moving away (presumably to fulfill my order) before my friend had the chance to respond too. On the other hand, she was responsive and accurate when we asked how many dishes from the”Small Eats” section of the menu she felt would provide a good meal for two (five) and she always had a smile for us when she came to the table. She was fairly attentive – we never struggled to get her attention. I’d summarise service as friendly and reasonably efficient but more suited to a casual restaurant chain than a high-flyer like Hakkasan.

So what did we order and how was it?

Dim sum platter – scallop shumai, har gau, Chinese chive dumpling, shimeji dumpling (£11.50)

Handily, there were two of each dumpling so we could both sample all of them. All were well-made from good quality ingredients. The scallop shumai, har gau and chive dumplings were fairly standard and very much what you’ll find in good quality dim sum establishments. The shimeji (mushroom) dumpling was new to me and I really liked the earthy, very umami flavours. It was an open dumpling and there was a thick, rich sauce over the rest of the (vegetarian) contents – very nice.

Jasmine tea smoked organic pork ribs (£11.50)

The ribs were tasty though I can’t say I could detect the jasmine tea smoked flavour. Perfectly pleasant but no better than their counterparts in many Chinese restaurants up and down the country, and certainly overpriced in comparison.

Roasted mango duck with lemon sauce (£11.00)

I enjoyed this dish, though the portion of six very small slices of duck separated by the same number of mango slices, was smaller than I’d have liked. The mango and lemon sauce was tasty, and had a better depth of flavour (and less cloying texture) than the overly sweet lemony syrups beloved of Chinese takeaways.

Stir-fry edamame with pickled vegetable, beancurd stick and salted duck egg (£8.80)

This dish was, without a doubt, the single stand-out dish of the meal. Fresh edamame beans were mixed with a smattering of pickled vegetables, slivers of crispy beancurd and a sprinkle of salty, savoury powder which we assumed must be the duck egg. The combination of textures and flavours worked fantastically well and both of us continued to make noises of appreciation through to the last mouthfuls.

Sesame prawn toast (£13.00)

£13.00 bought us 4 sesame prawn toasts served with more slivered beancurd sticks and a small pile of crispy seaweed. Instead of the usual flat triangles, Hakkasan embedded whole, tail-on prawns within a dome of prawn paste set onto a circle of toast (covered with sesame seeds and deep-fried as usual). The tail stuck out of the dome providing a nifty handle. So presentation was definitely unusual. Taste was a little disappointing; I’d rate this dish as average against a selection of prawn toasts from a range of Chinese restaurants and takeaways. The seaweed too was nothing special. The beancurd sticks provided an additional salty crunch but were somewhat superflous against the crunch of the toasts themselves.

For our second cocktails, I went for more of the same and remained lost in heaven. My friend tried a Jasmine Fon Fon which I think included fresh strawberry, passion fruit, pink grapefruit juice, rum, cinnamon and champagne. Not only beautiful to look at – ruby red, served in a globular glass and topped with a thick white foam – it also packed a punch flavourwise.

Although we were pleasantly full we decided to order one dessert to share.

Tapioca pearl pudding – with vanilla panna cotta, poached banana and passion fruit sorbet (£8.00)

The tapioca pudding itself was lovely. The glimmering little pearls sat in a thick sauce flecked with real vanilla. On top floated a ball of passionfruit sorbet, a single tiny slice of poached banana and several pieces of salted popcorn (not mentioned in the menu description). Initially we thought the vanilla sauce of the tapioca pudding must be what the menu was referring to as panna cotta, failing to spot anything more solid, but towards the end, at the bottom of the dish, we found a few scant fragments of what was probably the hidden cooked cream. The dish mostly worked but we both agreed that whilst the passionfruit sorbet was perfectly nice on it’s own, it clashed horribly with the sweet, creamy vanilla pudding. It seemed like an interloper in a set of components that otherwise gelled well. The poached banana slice was tasty – I’d have liked a little more of it, so it was more than a mere garnish. The salted popcorn was an unexpectedly successful surprise – it contrasted in taste and texture with the creamy vanilla without clashing, like the sorbet. A good way to finish, along with the final slurps of our cocktails.

I can’t share any photos of our dishes with you, as apparently photography is not permitted in the restaurant, as I was told on taking a snap of my cocktail, at the bar. One member of staff helpfully told me that the owner, Mr Yau, was quite insistent about this. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she knew that he’d sold the restaurant several months ago! Nor were staff permitted to give me a photocopy of the menu which would surely have been preferable to my having a notepad and pen out at the dining table in order to record the names and descriptions of the dishes we ordered! My friend, who’d been before, told me that the no photography rule didn’t apply only to the food – she and her husband were stopped from taking photos of themselves enjoying a special evening out.

Our bill came to a whopping £115 (including service, added automatically to the bill). I’d happily pay that price for a fantastic restaurant experience but Hakkasan failed to deliver that for me.

Hakkasan on Urbanspoon
 

Just a quick post to say thank you to everyone who kindly contributed to the list of questions for me to answer in my Who Am I? post. The blog’s 2-month anniversary (today) seemed a good time to introduce myself properly so I had intended to write the post on the weekend ready to post it today but there were so many (great) questions, it’ll take me a lot longer than I thought!

Instead, I’ll just take a moment to thank all of you who’ve been visiting my newbie blog, especially those of you who’ve taken the time to leave me comments – these are really encouraging to a new blogger and I appreciate every one of them!

Thank you too, to the food blogging community at large for encouragement, advice and information and a warm welcome into the fold.

Any opinions about the content I’m posting, ideas for future posts, tips and advice about content or layout are very welcome as are simple hellos so please do comment away!

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