A few years back, I read blog posts about Bacchus, a Hoxton restaurant offering exciting, unusual cooking from chef Nuno Mendes. He was using avant-garde techniques I’d come to associate with chefs such as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal – spherification, distillation, liquid nitrogen, sous-vide (water baths) and more. I was intrigued and I meant to go and meant to go but somehow I just didn’t get around to it.

In 2009 I read many blog posts and tweets about Mendes’ Loft Project, an underground restaurant he established in his loft apartment, where he developed and served innovative dishes to an appreciative audience. It was the only underground restaurant I knew of that was commanding £100 a head for a meal yet leaving it’s diners utterly enchanted. I meant to go and meant to but somehow I just didn’t get around to it.

In 2010 I read many blog posts and tweets about the launch of Mendes’ own restaurant, Viajante, and I salivated again over the descriptions and images of his unusual and appealing food. And I meant to go and meant to go but somehow I just didn’t get around to it.

Finally, 2011 rolled around and I was determined to rectify my appalling misbehaviour.

I booked a table for lunch on the first Friday of the year and Pete and I duly made our way down to Bethnal Green.

Viajante
image courtesy of Viajante

Housed in what was once Bethnal Green town hall but is now a hotel, Viajante is a light and airy space.

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As one comes in to the spacious lobby, to the right is a separate bar room (and stairs down to the toilets) and to the left, the dining area. The restaurant has been designed by a talented but light hand; its quirky décor is a charming blend of retro-modern wooden furnishings with some beautifully coloured, textured woven wall hangings, against high white walls with period features and old parquet flooring.

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We were pleased to be seated close to the open kitchen area, where we could watch the chefs in their surprisingly quiet, carefully choreographed and rehearsed routines. The dining room is split into two rooms, by the way, so tables in the farther room won’t be able to see the kitchen.

We opted for the 6 course tasting menu, priced at £50 a head.

We decided against the beverage pairings (which include wine and beer, so I believe). Mostly we stuck to still water which staff refilled regularly throughout the meal. To start, I fancied a cocktail but none on the cocktail menu appealed. Our waitress asked me what I liked and had the barman prepare something for me; whatever it was, I liked it. Pete started with a beer, before switching also to water.

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Before our 6 menu courses, we were served the famous Thai explosion (Mark ll), a savoury mouthful of chicken mousse, quail’s egg, coconut and Thai spices, sandwiched between paper thin crisped chicken skin. I’d read about this (and it’s predecessor) in virtually every review and yet, nothing prepared me for the explosion of flavours and textures in my mouth – no, not even the name! If all fusion cooking were like this, I’d be a mouth-foaming disciple, screaming the message to every non-believer I met! What a start!

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Next to arrive was a board of bread and butter. That simple title doesn’t do justice to the beautifully shaped individual loafs and the two quenelles of whipped butters served alongside. One,was whipped brown butter topped with crispy chicken skin, Iberico ham and a scattering of pretty purple potato powder. The other was whipped black pudding brown butter sprinkled with potato skins. Both were tasty – creamy and light – but my favourite was the black pudding one, which had more flavour.

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Finally, we were served the first of our menu dishes – scallops with carrot, mustard and watercress. Throughout our meal, we were looked after by a number of different staff, all of whom took time to explain the elements of the dish they were serving. All shared an obvious pride in what they placed in front of us. And no wonder – this dish was a revelation. Thin slices of raw scallop were slippery silk in the mouth and naturally sweet, enhanced by the sugars within the beautifully presented raw and lightly pickled carrots. I have no idea what alchemy Mendes’ has invented to transform mustard into the frozen snow served on the dish, but the ice-cold feel contrasted with the fiery flavour in a most surprising and delightful way. The sauce poured over the top, that pulled the diverse elements together, was a carrot consommé with watercress oil, a herby delight.

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Next to arrive, after we watch it being assembled in the kitchen, was lobster, potato, confit egg yolk and saffron. We both agreed fairly quickly that, whilst we loved the raw scallop, uncooked lobster is distinctly unpleasant in texture. The runny egg yolk was nice enough, though I’ve had many yolks with far more flavour – this one was a touch bland. Flavour came instead from the fish fumet (a concentrated fish stock). The pasta sheets added little, nor did the potato. Even the saffron just seemed to muddy the dish, rather than contribute. Interesting, certainly, but one we’d want to have again? No.

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The next dish was definitely more my kind of thing than Pete’s. The braised salmon skin and fried aubergine puree was served over confit salmon and salmon roe with spring onion, purple shiso and enoki mushrooms (one of my favourite herbs) in an agedashi broth. I enjoyed the salty sweet balance of the salmon, broth, roe, spring onions and mushrooms but the aubergine purée didn’t capture the flavour of aubergine very much and I’d have much preferred the salmon skin crispy rather than flaccid and slimy.

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Next to the table was seabass toast, garlic kale, Iberico ham and San Jorge. The crunchy, hammy toasted lid over the seabass was very satisfying and the fish cooked perfectly. The garlic and kale puree was richly vegetal and minerally. I liked the burst of juice and flavour from the shallot rings, and would have liked a few more to balance the last few mouthfuls of fish. The blanched radicchio leaf added little for me. The only thing I didn’t think worked was the cheese, which to me was really discordant with the fish. The San Jorge was a lovely, powerful cheese, so it almost overpowered the seabass, for me.

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Our seventh dish to be served was duck with beetroot and pistachio. The duck was served pink, with a good layer of fat. I liked the beetroot served in an array of colours and textures – thin, crunchy, rolled sheets, cooked and served in solid pieces and puréed. For me, the crunch of the pistachio didn’t really enhance the rest, though I guess I didn’t mind it. Pete’s not a fan of nuts at all, so scraped his pistachios to one side.

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Sea buckthorn is a trendy ingredient of late, though for all I know, Mendes’ has been championing it as long as anyone. I have encountered it a few times in the last year and am rather fond of it’s tart, citrusy, fruity flavour. So the sea buckthorn granite and burnt meringue pre-dessert was quite welcome. That said, I’d have liked a little more of the meringue than the little squiggle squirted up the side of the bowl!

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I adore pears, especially Nashi. So I was surprised not to enjoy the dessert of grilled Williams pears and pickled Nashi pears, walnut dacquoise crumbs, crème fraiche and roasted pear ice cream. There was not enough sweet to balance the sour and the textures didn’t work for me either. This may just be the first pear dessert I’ve had that I didn’t like, let alone love. I left virtually all of mine, though Pete must have liked it more as he ate most of his.

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Harmony was restored when the petits fours were served with the coffee. There were three offerings here – a cepe mushroom and white chocolate truffle, a clementine sponge and a Catalan cream. The mushroom truffle was another revelation – I would never in a million years have dreamt of combining the woody, earthiness of cepe with the rich, buttery sweetness of white chocolate (coated in a dusting of dark cocoa) – it was sensational! The clementine sponge was deeply moist and smacked both the nosebuds and tastebuds with intense, perfumed sweet citrus. The Catalan cream buzzed with orange and lemon flavours; an addictive little pot of custard. It took immense will power not to dash up to the kitchen service area a couple of metres away and steal the next set of petits fours, waiting to be taken to their table. Although I desperately wanted to ask for another truffle, for fear of making an arse of myself I didn’t.

A word about the coffee though, asking for an extra milky caffe latte resulted in one of the strongest I’ve ever been served. The coffee maker did check back and happily offered to make another weaker one but it was still so strong I couldn’t drink it.

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And all of a sudden our meal was over and it was time to reflect upon it as we settled our bill and made the journey back to our distant corner of London.

Viajante is Portuguese for traveller and is a lovely way of referencing the global influences Mendes’ brings to his cooking. Whilst it’s not, in the main, what one would usually call fusion cooking, Mendes isn’t shy about making use of ingredients, ideas and flavours from different cuisines.

The unexpected flavours, textures, combinations and presentations were refreshing. The whole meal was exciting and provoking.

That scallop dish actually made me grin with delight – it was surprising, enchanting and delicious – everything I’d hoped for in my long anticipation of finally tasting Mendes’ cooking!

This meal was as much about that feeling of experiencing something new as enjoying the food, though that was part of it, of course.

The duck with beetroot and pistachio did showcase one downside of the Viajante approach – diners do not see a menu before the meal so, unless they remember to give a comprehensive list of their dislikes in advance, they may well be faced with something they really don’t want. Even the least fussy eater has a few ingredients they simply don’t like and yet one feels a bit guilty to state more than one or two unless one suffers a genuine allergy. I had failed to mention that Pete dislikes nuts. Next time, I shall not feel shy about asking in advance for our strongest dislikes to be avoided.

It seems our visit was opportunely timed; Michelin announced it’s latest guide results just a couple of weeks later, Viajante was duly awarded it’s first star. For a restaurant that’s been open less than a year, I think this is an impressive achievement, and indicative of the quality of food and service, as well as Mendes’ inventive approach.

I only hope it doesn’t make it too difficult to secure a reservation, since I’m sure we’ll want to return soon!

Viajante on Urbanspoon
 

Whilst Julia isn’t the first food blogger to get a book deal, she’s one of the first in the UK and certainly the first that I know personally, so I couldn’t help but feel especially delighted for her and eager to check out A Slice of Cherry Pie for myself.

Published by Absolute Press, a company with a great reputation for beautiful food titles, there’s a clear focus on evoking the different seasons, and the way they affect mood and inspire one’s cooking.

The book takes us through the year, season by season, chapter by chapter, with titles such as Cherry blossom, Sunshine and lemons, Pebbles and ice cream and Wood smoke and roasts; eight such chapters all together.

At the beginning of each is an introduction from Julia about what the season means to her – a mix of nostalgic memories and current cherished habits. I like the hand-written fragments from Julia’s blog: “Blossom-filled trees, dipping with their heavy loads, flowers in full bloom peeking out from beneath cotton wool snow; how beautiful snow is in the springtime“.

Here and there are excerpts from cherished books and poems such as Wuthering Heights, The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh…

As readers of Julia’s blog would expect, there are plenty of colour photographs throughout the book, beautifully styled images of the recipes themselves, intimate childhood snapshots from Julia’s family album and some of Julia’s own photographs too.

Design wise, for me, it’s a mix. Most of it I like very much, such as the lace and aged parchment background to one recipe, the spiral bound notepad behind another and the textural peeling blue painted wall. Other design elements, I find less appealing, such as the photograph of a pumpkin chopped into a panel grid and other similarly retro design motifs. Of course, a retro look and feel was probably part of the intentional design brief, given the nostalgic nature of the book so chalk this up to personal taste!

I like food books that are a combination of recipes and personal memoir and Julia’s book leans in that direction. I confess, I’d like even more of those personal passages; they give a deeper insight into the memories and feelings that have inspired Julia’s cooking and make the book much more than a simple collection of recipes.

Recipe wise, Julia shares fairly simple dishes; the kind of food one cooks at home or might expect at a cosy little pub with a reputation for good home-cooking. For experienced cooks, there’s probably not much that they won’t already be familiar with or be able to create off the tops of their heads, but I think the simplicity of the recipes together with the straightforward, encouraging instructions will appeal a great deal to novice or less experienced cooks.

Recipes range from soups and salads to light bites and hearty mains to desserts, patisseries, sweets and biscuits.

I know I was not alone in asking, immediately I heard about the publishing deal, whether the book would contain a recipe for that eponymous cherry pie – the simple pleasure that sums up Julia’s passion for hearty yet delicious cooking.

And of course, it does. Julia says in the introduction: “To be perfectly honest, I am not sure that any cherry pie can live up to the one in my head: the one with crumbly pastry and glossy, jammy cherries bursting with deep flavour; the one that tells stories of summertime and of family life around the kitchen table; the one that offers nourishment and love with every bite. So here I offer you just a humble pie, but one that makes me very happy. Eat a slice of it warm with vanilla ice cream and tell me the world isn’t a better place.

I was sent my review copy of the book in the depths of a snowy winter, so cherry pie was the last thing on my mind. The recipe that appealed was a hearty dish Julia describes as a “rib-sticking pasta dish”, the creamy sausage pasta.

Creamy Sausage Pasta

Serves 4-6

Ingredients
olive oil
8 good quality pork sausages, eat cut into 6 pieces
1 large onion, halved and sliced
200 ml double cream
200 ml beef stock
2 sprigs thyme
300 grams dried pasta shapes, e.g. farfalle or fusilli
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

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  • Heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan and brown the sausage pieces. When they’re almost, but not quite, cooked through remove them from the pan. Next add the onion to the same pan which should now have some lovely, sticky brown bits left from the sausages, and fry them gently for fifteen minutes, until they are softened and lightly golden. Then turn the heat up high and cook the onions for a few minutes more until they turn darker golden brown.

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  • Return the sausages to the pan along with the cream, beef stock and thyme. Bring the cream and stock to the boil and season it with salt and black pepper, then simmer it until the sausages are cooked through and the sauce thickens, which will take about 20-25 minutes.

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  • While the sauce is simmering bring a large pan of salted water to the boil then add the pasta. Bring the water back up to the boil and cook the pasta according to the pack instructions, until al dente – soft on the outside but still a little firm in the middle. Drain the pasta.

  • Check the seasoning in the sauce then add the pasta to it and mix it all together well before serving.

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This is one of those dishes that is definitely more than the sum of it’s parts. As Julia says in the recipe introduction, the creamy sauce takes on the flavour of the sausages and onions, coming together into a beautiful finished dish.

We’ve made it a couple of times and it’s definitely joined our repertoire of simple, tasty suppers.

Notes:

Unless you’re planning on serving starters or dessert as well, I’d say this dish serves 3-4 rather than 4-6.

The instructions suggest adding the sprigs of thyme whole. We chose to strip the leaves from the sprigs first.

Whilst I use sea salt for recipes where it’s sprinkled on at the end or retains it’s crystalline form, for cooking I don’t see the point, so we substituted ordinary table salt for the seasoning.

With thanks to Absolute Press for the review copy.


A Slice of Cherry Pie is currently available from Amazon for £11.87.

 

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Supermarkets have been selling ‘own label’ products forever. Beer is no exception – I’ve reviewed Aldi’s Finchley’s Ales IPA previously here, and I’ve got another of their bottles lurking downstairs in my “to be reviewed” pile. Usually, the actual producers of these own label products are fairly obscure; although it’s suspected that Aldi use Bateman’s for their beer, it’s not mentioned on the bottle – that guess is largely based on the bottle shape!

Tesco have taken a different approach with their ‘Finest’ range, and named the breweries that they have worked with. At first I imagined that they’d approached these producers to come up with something just for Tesco, but it actually looks like in each case they’ve just changed the name of one of their existing brews a little and slapped a new label on – it’s a little disappointing, but I suppose I can understand that it’s a lot easier for the breweries to take this approach.

Finding a 3 for £4 deal (now sadly expired) I snapped up the three different Tesco Finest beers on the shelves at my local branch, and brought them home to sample.

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Starting with the American Double IPA (9.2%), produced by those crazy people at Brewdog – and likely to be a badged version of their Hardcore IPA. A crystal clear, deep golden beer with a lingering foam, it’s actually so full of hops that I’m pretty sure I found a petal or two floating in the glass. Buckets and buckets of sweet, flowery citrus hops on the nose and a real undertone of alcohol fumes. The taste is, if anything, even more full of bitter citrus hops than the smell, but the alcohol punches through even more strongly. It’s almost a great beer but the balance is somehow off – the big hitting hops clash with the equally hard hitting alcohol and it’s just too much. A big strong beer like this can be a wonderful thing, but this somehow doesn’t quite pull it off – I’m a little disappointed.

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Next up, Traditional Porter (6%) from the Harviestoun Brewery, which is actually their Old Engine Oil. A black brew with a thin, fine bubbled head and a rich chocolate smell, which combines with bitter coffee notes on tasting, it’s rich, sweet and deeply flavoured and is a wonderful tasting porter. Excellent work and comfortably the best beer of the set.

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Lastly, Traditional Alcoholic Ginger Beer (3.8%) from Williams Brothers Brewery. Pouring light straw coloured, with very little head, it looks more like a fizzy drink than a beer. Ginger is the overwhelming smell you get, but it still tastes of actual beer on drinking. The heat from the ginger is very much in evidence, although the taste is not so obvious – it’s a very light tasting beer, with a citrus lemon sharpness and a lot of artificial fizz. It’s not a bad ginger beer, but it’s not remarkable.

Overall, a bit of a mixed bag, and no more successful than if I’d just walked in and grabbed three bottles off the shelves at random – I’m not convinced that the ‘Finest’ label makes much sense here. That said, it’s certainly exposed me to some new breweries and Harviestoun is definitely getting added to my BTAH (Brewery Tour At Home) list!

 

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At last Saturday’s Fire & Knives Mixed Grill (more on that soon), Food Futurologist Morgaine Gaye ran through a number of trends that we should expect in the UK soon. Some have already taken root in America and elsewhere in the world, others are all new.

One such trend was Meat & Sweet, with particular mention of bacon and chocolate.

I immediately recognised one of the images in Gaye’s collage as the Vosges Haut Chocolat Dark Bacon Bar that my very lovely friend Andre Dang brought back from San Francisco for me just a few weeks ago.

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Vosges was founded by owner and chocolatier, Katrina Markoff, who trained and graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris before honing her skills working in a number of countries around the world. One of the company’s mission statements is to create luxury chocolate that also brings to the consumer knowledge of a range of common and more unusual ingredients, and through them, an awareness of the countries and cultures which produce them. Vosges is also committed to green environmental policies, and the fact that it’s Chicago based factory is powered entirely with renewable energy indicates that this is more than marketing lip service.

Clearly, the business model works as Vosges has several boutiques in Chicago, New York and a couple of other cities.

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I was sure I’d love this chocolate as I have always been a huge fan of meat and sweet, to the extent that I often weird out friends with my food choices – crispy bacon with tinned peaches, for example!

Sadly, it didn’t live up to my expectations.

Whilst the small dry bits of bacon within the chocolate gave a nice hit of salt and an interesting chewy texture, they didn’t pack the bacon meatiness I was hoping for. If I had been given a piece in a blind tasting, I’d have certainly detected the bacon but struggled to identify it as such from the taste. The chocolate itself was decent enough, though not amazing.

I think I’d be better off crisping up some streaky rashers and dipping them in melted chocolate myself, as per one of Gaye’s other collage images!

The bar is priced at $7.50 but you’ll have to add a whopping $76.00 in shipping charges to that if you want them to send a bar to you here in the UK! That or find an Andre Dang of your own to bring some back for you in his suitcase!

 

I’ve reviewed some of Thorntons’ chocolate blocks before. I have rather a big soft spot for the coconut and lime white chocolate one!

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Since I tasted the last selection, several new flavours have been launched, including a number of fruit ones.

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First up, the “Born To Share” Milk Chocolate with Mango block – a limited edition being sold in support of Save The Children. 91 pence from each bar sold is helping to provide education resources for children in Haiti.

The chocolate itself is 37% cocoa sourced from Haiti, another way of supporting economic recovery in this earthquake-ravaged country.

The chocolate contains decent chunks of chewy fruit, which can be clearly seen when you break the bar into pieces. At first, I can feel the chewy texture but detect little mango flavour, and am disappointed. However, as I continue to finish my first mouthful, the distinctive sweet-sour flavour of dried mango finally makes an appearance. I like it!

This is an easy eating milk chocolate bar with a subtle flavour note of dried mango. Some might not like the feel of chewy bits of mango stuck in their teeth, but as an avid dried fruit eater, I’m used to it!

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Next, the Dark Chocolate with Apricot block, made with Fair Trade organic 55% cocoa.

The low cocoa content makes this a very sweet dark chocolate, very reminiscent of Cadbury’s Bournville, though with a nicer flavour.

The chewy chunks of apricot are more prevalent in this than the mango pieces in the previous block. Again, the fruit flavour comes through more clearly as one finishes the mouthful. It’s also stronger in some bites than others; perhaps the batch of apricots are quite varied in their intensity of flavour.

To my surprise, I finished more of this block than expected!

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Last up, the Milk Chocolate with Banana block, made with Fair Trade organic 37% cocoa.

On breaking the block into pieces, I can’t see any obvious pieces of dried banana at all. But popping a piece into my mouth and the banana flavour explodes straight away.

Unlike the other blocks, you don’t have two distinct flavours of chocolate and fruit but one combined flavour.

And it’s very much a cooked banana flavour, rather than a raw one. This is to be expected, given the use of dried banana in the ingredients.

It’s pretty intense, like a concentrated chocolate and banana muffin or a baked banana with melted chocolate. I don’t think I could eat a lot at a time, but that’s no bad thing!

* * *

Thank you to my friend Dom, who gave me the apricot block and the banana one. Thanks to Thorntons for the review sample of their Mango block.

 

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Yes, this statement of the bleedin’ obvious is something I’ve “helpfully” been told by a surprisingly large number of people over the last 39 years… I still get it now, from time to time.

And, you know, I can even understand how using Ryvita as an aide-memoire for Kavita might help some people to remember my name more easily. Though I do wish they’d remember to switch back to Kavita instead of calling me Ryvita to my face.

Despite all that, Ryvita has a fond place in my affections, having been a sorta kinda namesake for so long!

Back in the eighties, the decade I associate most strongly with the modern obsession with diets, Ryvita was a key part of lunch boxes and light home lunches for many of the calorie conscious. I was (though I realise it must be quite a shock for those of you who know me now) quite a skinny thing back then but I quite liked the crunchy texture and enjoyed it now and again.

But I’ve not had it for years and years and years.

Chatting to a friend about nicknames recently, I was inevitably reminded about this crunchy snack.

Now that one can more readily find Swedish knäckebröd (crispbread) in the UK as well as the wonderful Peters Yard Crispbread (made in the UK in a Scandinavian style) I wondered how Ryvita would compare.

To my delight, when a PR friend learned about my long-time nickname, she arranged for some Ryvita to be sent to me for review.

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We tried our two varieties of Ryvita – Sunflower Seeds & Oats and Pumpkin Seeds & Oats – with a picnic-style spread of duck liver paté, sliced Spanish chorizo, smoked mackerel paté and a satisfyingly liquid-centred Vacherin du Haut-Doubs Mont d’Or (cheese).

To my surprise I really, really liked both varieties, particularly the pumpkin seed one with the soft bite and flavour of the little green seeds. Pete enjoyed them too.

The best topping was definitely the vacherin cheese, spooned out of the container and smeared liberally over the crispbread.

I realised that, in the many years since I’d last eaten Ryvita, I had mingled my memories of Ryvita with a number of completely different styles of crispbread – one that has a texture more akin to edible polystyrene (do you know the one I mean?) and another that is essentially dried halved bread rolls.

In fact, Ryvita crispbread is very similar in taste and texture to the authentic Leksands Swedish crispbread I rediscovered recently.

I started off tickled by the idea of a post about my sorta kinda namesake and ended up happily finding myself falling for the product itself! It’ll certainly be making an appearance more regularly from now on.

Feb 132011
 

Roselle (known as Rosella in Australia) is a species of Hibiscus, a genus of flowering plants numbering in the hundreds and native to temperate, subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world.

It’s also known as red sorrel, Jamaica sorrel, Indian sorrel, Guinea sorrel, sour-sour, Queensland jelly plant, jelly okra, lemon bush, Florida cranberry, amongst a whole list of other names. Jelly okra doesn’t sound too lovely to me!

Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is commonly grown for bast fibre, which is used in the manufacture of rope, matting, carpets, paper and even furniture. The red sepals (part of the flower) are used as food colourings in America and Europe.

And flowers and syrup are used to flavour a variety of dishes, restorative infusions, diuretic tonics and medical ointments in places as far afield as Senegal, Burma, Sudan, India and Brazil. The Senegalese use the leaves too, as a vegetable green.

More recently, roselle seems to have become trendy in Western European bars and restaurants, where preserved flowers and syrups are now available.

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When I was offered a jar of the flowers in their own syrup, I was curious, having heard of them only in the last year, but never having tried them. The 250 gram jar contains 11 flowers.

I decided to keep things simple and opted for trying the flowers in champagne, one of the most common serving suggestions. To my good fortune, I discovered a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Rosé in the cupboard. How serendipitous!

I took both Rosella and the champers along on a visit to friends and together, we gave it a try.

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Our flowers never opened as beautifully as those in the marketing shots (no big shock there) and the rosé champagne did, perhaps, subtract a little from the beautiful colour that the syrup imparted.

However, we liked the fruity jam aroma and the sweet floral taste. And certainly, we enjoyed sipping our rather elegant and unusual aperitif…

…before tucking into a takeaway curry from the local curry house!

 

{please see comments section for updates/ corrections on lemon variety.}

A few weeks ago, a binge of bloggers* gathered in Drummond Street for a tasty, vegetarian, Indian meal. MiMi went shopping first and gifted organiser Will, with a large, green citrus. I adore the smell of limes and lemons and couldn’t stop myself from picking up this beautiful fruit and sniffing it, somewhat dementedly, throughout the evening.

I wanted one. I needed one. I had to have one!

So a couple of days later, armed with MiMi’s instructions on where to find the shop, I went back and bought not one but three of the large fruits for the princely sum of £4.

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I asked the shopkeeper what kind of limes they were. He told me they were Bangladeshi lemons.

I have since discovered that they are also known as wild oranges and shatkora. Neither a lemon (Citrus limon) nor one of the many species of limes, they are actually a different species, Citrus macroptera. Bangladesh grows a variant called annamensis which is known locally as shatkora.

Oh, and while I remember, please can I strongly recommend against an image search on the term “Bangladeshi lemon” without first turning on your safe search filter to exclude some rather explicit images! It seems the word “lemon” has come to be used for something quite, quite different!

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Shatkora are quite large, broadly oval in shape, with pointy ends and a deeply ridged exterior. In terms of the oils in the zest, I’d say that the shatkora smell much closer to limes than lemons. Oddly, the juice tastes more like lemon than lime.

I was determined to make as much of my glorious citrus as possible.

 

Candied Citrus Peel

I’ve never candied citrus peel before but have intended to do so for many years. These shatkora had such an intensely perfumed, oil-rich zest that I decided a recipe focusing on the peel would be a good place to start.

I found several recipes on the internet and amalgamated a number of them into the following:

Ingredients

130 grams lemon peel
180 grams sugar + additional for finish
8 tablespoons water

Method

  • Peel the lemon, removing as much pith as possible from the skin, and cut into long narrow strips (approximately half an inch wide).

I found the easiest way was to cut my shatkora into half along their length and then cut each half into three, also along the length. Once I had 6 long segments, it was easier to cut the main fruit away from the peel and outer pith with a sharp knife. The shatkora had really, really thick pith so the next job was to cut the peel into the narrow strips and then Pete and I spent an hour paring as much pith away from each strip as we could.

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  • Weight your strips of peel so you can work out roughly how much sugar and water you will need, though you don’t need to be too precious about exact ratios – I wasn’t!
  • Put the pith-stripped peel into a saucepan of boiling water, bring to the boil and then drain.

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  • Repeat twice more with fresh water.
  • Combine sugar and water in your saucepan and put in the drained peel, submerging as much of it as possible.
  • Bring to a bubbling simmer and keep it bubbling for about 10 minutes.

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  • Reduce the heat and simmer more gently (barely bubbling) for about 45 minutes, until the peel becomes translucent.I kept an eye on it (because of an innate fear of boiling sugar) but didn’t stir.

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  • Drain (and save syrup, see below).
  • Roll the peel in additional caster sugar to finish.
  • Spread out on parchment paper or baking sheet and either leave to dry in warm sunny spot or dry in a very low oven for an hour or so.
  • Store in airtight container. Should keep for a few weeks.

A couple of the strips retained a touch too much pith and were therefore just a touch too bitter for my taste, but most were fine and really tasty, with a strong lime flavour.

 

Citrus Cordial

I bottled the sugar and water cooking syrup from making the candied peel to use as a cordial.

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Lemon Posset

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My first thought was to make lemon curd but a last minute lightning rod of inspiration turned my head to posset. This time a couple of years ago I’d never heard of posset but it’s resurging in popularity lately and I love it.

In medieval times posset referred to a hot drink of milk curdled with wine or ale, often with treacle and spices added for flavour. It was considered to be a general restorative and a remedy for various illnesses. Later, in the 16th-century, posset was often made from citrus juice; cream and sugar, sometimes with the addition of egg; it sounds rather like lemon curd to me, but was apparently served as a sauce to accompany meat.

These days posset most commonly refers to a cold set dessert containing cream, sugar and citrus juice, similar to a syllabub but without any wine.

Recipes on the internet vary wildly in ratios of cream, sugar and lemon juice. I used this Nigel Slater recipe (scroll down) and found it to be spot on.

I’ve now made this three times (the first time using shatkora zest and juice, the second two times with ordinary lemons) and scaled up to using 1.2 litres of double cream the last two times.

Posset is incredibly rich, so a small serving per person is all you want. The quantities below will serve 4 to 6.

Ingredients

600 ml double cream
180 g caster sugar
90 ml shatkora or lemon juice
optional: finely grated zest

Method

  • Put the cream and caster sugar in a large saucepan (that allows for the liquid to double in volume) and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar.

This takes several minutes but keep a close eye, as when it reaches boiling point, it expands very fast.

  • Reduce the heat so that the mixture doesn’t boil over, but not too low as you want to allow it to bubble enthusiastically for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring regularly.
  • Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and zest and leave to settle for a few minutes.
  • Pour into small serving dishes or cups and leave to cool. Refrigerate for a couple of hours before serving.

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Given the lack of colour in the juice, I was amazed at the bright yellow of the finished posset – it was glorious! Apparently, the colour is the result of changes to the cream when it’s boiled.

The posset set perfectly into a really thick, intensely rich cream with the perfect balance of sweet and tart.

The first time I made this, using the shatkora, I pared lots of vivid green zest from the 6 pieces chopped off both ends of each lemon. I chopped this and stirred it into the cooked cream with the lemon juice but, in retrospect, I should have chopped it far, far smaller. The next two times I made posset, using ordinary lemons, I finely grated the zest and this worked really, really well.

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I served the posset with a stick of candied shatkora peel in each serving.

On the third making, I poured the posset into cute black and white espresso cups and served it with a stick of candied shatkora peel sticking upright into each cup. Sadly, I have lost all my photos of that evening, so can’t show you just how chic it looked!

 

Cold Juice

The shatkora gave a lot of juice, especially since we found an electric juicer in a cupboard and it thrashed the heck out of the fruit segments, extracting every last drop.

I froze the leftovers for later use.

 

Taking The Pith

I also kept all the pith from our initial peeling and paring of the peel and following the juice extraction. I was surprised at how much there was so I bagged it up into portions and froze it, for use to provide natural pectin, next time I make jam.

 

* What collective noun would you use for bloggers?

 

Regular readers will be familiar with my constantly banging on about bottle conditioned beer. I’ve always believed that beer is a living product and even when bottled should be as close as possible to it’s real, cask-conditioned brother and the only way to do that is to leave the yeast in, to finish that secondary fermentation right in the bottle. I know I’m not alone in this belief – even CAMRA have a whole ‘Real Ale in a Bottle’ campaign.

It has been a long running mystery to me why any brewery, which is presumably run by beer loving folk, would spoil their beer by bottling it all filtered and killed and artificially carbonated instead of leaving a little yeast in and delivering their product as nature intended. One of my favourite breweries – Hogs Back (watch this space for a Brewery Tour At Home, I have a bag full of their bottles downstairs!) – has always produced proper, bottle conditioned beers but recently a lot of their bottles have switched to what they rather intriguingly call “brewery conditioned”. That’s another way of saying “not bottle conditioned” and after some googling – as well as chatting with them when I was down that way replenishing supplies – it turns out that it’s something that has been forced on them by their success.

You see, as they’ve grown they’ve managed to get listed in supermarkets. Occasionally, customers of those supermarkets take one of these bottles of carefully crafted, bottle-conditioned beers and, despite all the writing on the side explaining that there’s sediment and if you don’t want it in your glass then you should pour it carefully, end up taking it back to the supermarket and complaining that “it’s all cloudy”. To me, this is the beer drinking equivalent of sending back your gazpacho soup because it’s cold, but the supermarket, instead of saying “well of course it is, didn’t you read the damn bottle” not only take it back, but then send the whole batch to the poor brewery with a big bill attached.

Hogs Back have, quite reasonably, taken the view that they simply can’t afford to keep doing this and have (reluctantly, I get the impression) moved away from bottle conditioning to cater to this rather more fussy market. They say that it’s “the same great taste as the originals” and for what it’s worth, they’ve done a stunning good job – I hadn’t even noticed that the last crate of Gardener’s Tipple I bought was no longer bottle conditioned, which is saying a lot. But I was still curious as to how much difference it really makes.

Happily, Hogs Back understand that not everyone is confused by bottle conditioning and still produce some of their beers in their proper form. Even more happily for the scientist in me, one of their beers – Santa’s Wobble – is actually sometimes produced in both a bottle conditioned and “brewery conditioned” form, which allows me to do one of my proper comparisons!

hb-wobble hb-unconditioned hb-conditioned

So then, Santa’s Wobble is a 7.5% Christmas Ale; the bottle on the right is bottle conditioned. The one of the left is not. And yes, I’m enough of a fan to possess branded glassware.

As expected, they are very similar in look; no head, deep rich amber colour but not as dark as I was expecting from such a beer, somehow. Not much on the nose, some rich dark fruit which is more subtle on the bottle conditioned one. There are more obvious ‘fizzy’ bubbles on the side of the glass from the carbonation of the non-conditioned beer.

On tasting, the fizzy bubbles are again apparent from non-conditioned beer; there is a little air in the bottle conditioned version but it’s virtually flat. Aside from the bubbles, they are very, very close in taste. Rich, sweet, alcohol-soaked fruit and filled with malt – the flavours are more distinct in the bottle conditioned version without the distraction from the fizz but it’s a marginal thing. There’s a gentle alcohol tang, and a short lived but appealing bitterness to the end.

It’s very interesting; in terms of flavour the bottle conditioned beer is somehow richer and fuller, but on the nose, the non-conditioned one is much more up front and frankly smells more appealing. The bottle conditioned one is undeniably a more satisfying beer to drink and I’d pick it every time, but all credit to Hogs Back, they’ve done a great job in bottling it without the yeast.

CAMRA know what they’re talking about. Beer isn’t “Real Ale” once it’s been killed, and I personally think it’s absurd that breweries are forced down this route by what is, ultimately, a problem of consumer education and not a flaw in the product. But if a brewery really knows what it’s doing, it seems to be perfectly possible to produce a yeast-free bottled beer that, if not quite as good as the real thing, comes damn close.

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