What comes to mind for you when I ask you to think about Lebanon?

Is it the mass exodus of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948?

Is it the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, during which Beirut in particular was so often on the news? Internal conflict between political and religious factions within Lebanon, Invasions and attacks by Israel, counterattacks of Israel by the PLO and other Palestinian Liberation organisations and factions, and a Syrian intervention to name but a few facets of a long and very complex period of history.

Or perhaps the more recent 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon that resulted in 1,200 Lebanese deaths and 160 Israelis ones?

Or do you think of the Hezbollah, the militant political party and paramilitary resistance movement that emerged in the early 1980s, in response to conflict with Israel?

For me, it is all of the above, yes, of course – the civil war was almost a permanent news story during my childhood – it’s inevitable that it’s part of my consciousness about Lebanon.

Sometimes, though, it seems these responses are all that people associate with the country.

But what about the food and culture of Lebanon?

I have long been fascinated by the (much longer term) history of the wider region, reading tales about the Phoenicians sea-traders and the fertile crescent, often considered to be the cradle of civilisation.

And I’ve been drawn by the reputation of pre-1975 Beirut as a glamorous, cosmopolitan city much appreciated by commercial and tourist interests alike. In it’s heyday, Beirut was popular with the rich and famous and was said to offer the best of both the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

More than once I’ve heard it said that the Lebanese must surely be one of the most welcoming and hospitable people on earth.

And, of course, I’ve enjoyed what small fraction of the cuisine I’ve been able to try here in the UK.

Culinary Tour

So it was without any hesitation at all that I signed us up to Taste Lebanon‘s culinary tour of the country, lead by Bethany Kehdy, fellow food blogger and also food writer, photographer and nascent tour operator.

The tour is designed to give participants a “well-rounded taste of Lebanon through each of its region’s specialties” and is very much aimed at food lovers.

I won’t share every activity and place we visited – all the better reason for you booking to do the tour yourself.

But over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing a short series of posts on some of my favourite foods and places from the trip. I hope they give you a small taster of this wonderful country and encourage you to book your own holiday there soon.

In the mean time, here are lots and lots and lots of food and drink photographs from the trip:

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May 262011
 

The Hotel du Vin chain is pretty well known now for their stylish and inviting hotels – they’re modern but not so achingly hip that us normal folk feel out of place! And their hotel restaurants, called Bistro du Vin, have proved popular not only with guests overnighting at the hotels, but with local diners too.

So it’s no surprise that they’ve decided to branch out by opening a standalone Bistro du Vin restaurant, the first of many to come.

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Situated in trendy Clerkenwell, a few doors down from St John Bar & Restaurant, the restaurant is half way between Farringdon and Barbican tube stations. Located in a handsome London yellow brick, with trees on the pavement and a few outdoor tables beneath the green awning, it looks very much the part of a classic French neighbourhood bistro.

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Inside, one first walks into a spacious bar area, decorated like a pretty living room with fireplaces, mirrors and framed prints on the panelled and papered walls. I rather like it, though it’s much darker than it looks in my photo, despite all the light spilling in from outside.

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Quickly seated (and waiting for Pete), I check emails and twitter on my phone and discover a bistro du vin Wi-Fi in range. I connect and it takes me to a page that confirms it’s free but asks me to either log in with my full name and mobile telephone number or ask a member of staff for an access code. I ask; they tell me there isn’t such a thing. I refuse to provide my mobile number (which has carefully been kept off marketing lists these many long years) and enter a fictional one instead. Note to Bistro du Vin: I understand you might wish to restrict use to customers but please find a way to do so without insisting on provision of private telephone numbers.

I am pondering the drinks menu when a friendly barman suggests a cocktail featuring marmalade vodka as well as marmalade itself. I agree, and it’s delicious. Shortly afterwards Pete arrives, and has the same. I like the nibbles – pistachios and olives with red peppers – that are placed before us with the drinks.

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The bar leads through to the main dining area which offers a combination of booths and regular tables, plus a set of stools around the open kitchen. I rather like the kitchen gazing and wish I’d been given the option to have either an aperitif or our starters there, so we could watch the chefs at work, especially as I recognise John Woodward at the helm – group executive chef for the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin business.

At our table, again it’s a little darker than I’d prefer – I really like to be able to see what I’m eating in all its wonderful glory. But it’s a nice space, decorated to be traditional without being overbearingly so, and welcoming.

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Orders made, bread arrives, with a pat of soft butter. The bread is soft and fresh and I particularly enjoy the generously fruited one.

It’s a comforting menu, full of bistro classics. Starters range from £5.75 to £9.50 with some sharing options such as Iberica bellota ham (£10.50) and Forman’s London smoked salmon (£18.95). Mains start at just £9.50 and top out at £43 (for a 600 gram Porterhouse steak). There are plenty of mains below the £16 mark.

I’m tempted by all sorts of dishes from chèvre, mâche, peas and mint salad (£5.95/£10.50 starter/ main) to Goosnargh chicken supreme with broad beans and morels (£15.95) to an Osso bucco risotto Milanese (£20.00). But finally, we choose.

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Pete orders the foie Gras & chicken liver parfait (£7.95) which is served in the ubiquitous kilner-style jar, with some thin toasts and a chutney. It’s an excellent parfait, though tastes much more of chicken liver than goose or duck foie gras. Tasty though, so no complaints!

We have asked our sommelier to suggest matching wines by the glass for Pete, and with the parfait, he recommends a chardonnay (the details of which he wrote down for me and which I’ve misplaced, annoyingly). Pete’s not usually much of a white wine drinker, but agrees that this choice cuts through the fatty parfait and compliments it well.

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I opt for Cornish crab, toasted sourdough (£9.50) which is served in a dainty wide flat cylinder with white meat below and creamed brown meat on top. The sourdough toasts come on the side. The crab is just what it should be – deliciously fresh and sweet. I do find two small pieces of shell within it, which lets it down, but it’s not a big deal.

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For my main, I stick with a seafood theme and order the Hot Roasted Shells (£28 for one or £55 for two). A huge platter of freshly grilled lobster, crayfish, razor clams, oysters, crab claws, mussels and small and medium scallops is balanced on a stand before me. I love this idea to serve a warm version of a fruits de mer platter, which I believe was inspired by Rick Stein’s Seafood Bar, where shellfish are served hot from the Josper Grill. Since this kitchen also has a Josper Grill, this dish works just as well here. It is a hugely generous portion, with a hefty lobster tail and claw (in the shell) and a large chunk of crab alongside the easier-to-eat bivalves. Fantastic!

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For my sins, I cannot resist also trying the side dish of roast bone marrow (£3), though when I see the size of my seafood platter, I regret it! The bones are cut in half vertically, and bread crumbed before being grilled. But they have been cooked too long or hot, and the burned edges are not edible. The bites of the unburned sections are tasty though and had I not been so overwhelmed with my main, I may have asked for a fresh portion.

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Just as I stick to seafood, Pete sticks to meat, and orders a steak (cote de boeuf, I think) with fries and a roquefort sauce. Cooked on that much-respected Josper, the meat is beautifully tender and flavoursome – very good indeed. That’s no surprise, since it comes from respected Aberdeenshire butcher Donald Russell.

And this may be a good time to let you know about the policy of buying home grown, seasonal food wherever possible. Many of the suppliers are named on the back of the menu; it’s abundantly clear that this is a genuinely applied ethos and not just a marketing gimmick.

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Again, our sommelier suggests a wine match for the steak, offering Pete a Lebanese red wine. We’re delighted, as our visit to that country is just a week away. Pete likes the Chateau Musar Hochar Pere et Fils 2003 very much and we ask our sommelier to show us the bottle, that we might have a better chance of recognising and purchasing it during our Lebanon trip.

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After our mains, full though we are, we insist on sharing some cheese, having ogled the cheese trolley on our way into the dining room. The cheeses are provided by Eric Charriaux (the co-founder of La Cave a Fromage), so my expectations are high. Rene brings over the trolley and starts to tell us about the cheeses; he is surprised I recognise and am excited by the aged St Nectaire, amongst others. Sensing an interested audience, he enthusiastically tells us about the rest of the cheeses, explaining, after we ask, that he’s new to cheeses but learning as much as he can.

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After a pleasant discussion, we choose a few and he cuts the pieces for us. But, oh, how disappointing. Although the flavours are delightful – clearly aged perfectly – every single one of the 5 cheeses we try is really, really dry, almost powdery.

Those of you who watched the BBC2 series Service, where Michel Roux and Fred Sirieux train eight youngsters into front of house roles, will recognise Danielle, who was awarded a sommelier scholarship at the Hotel Du Vin in Winchester. She’s now working at the Bistro du Vin in Clerkenwell and comes across to suggest a different pairing for the cheese course, a reisling. The sommelier who has been looking after us throughout our meal makes the same recommendation, and Pete finds himself having his second white wine of the evening, and agrees it is an excellent match, working well with all the cheeses except the blue, just as we were told.

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I don’t have room for dessert but Pete says his lemon tart is nice, though the texture isn’t as good as a number he’s had elsewhere. Good but not great is the verdict.

I have a glass of rich, Christmassy Pedro Ximinez instead.

It’s been a wonderful meal – the kind of food that makes good eating. And service has been good too.

This is just the kind of place I love for a relaxed dinner with friends, so I’m pleased to learn from John Woodward that a second branch is due to open in Soho very soon. (6 weeks after my visit to the Clerkenwell branch which was in April). As that’ll be much easier for me to get to, if the food, service and ambience match up to this branch, I’ll likely be a regular.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Bistro du Vin.

Bistro du Vin on Urbanspoon

 

Over the next few months, Tesco Real Food are looking for the nation’s best real food cook.The idea is to provide a platform to share recipes for the kind of food we cook at home, whether we’re making breakfast to munch on the go, tasty and filling family suppers, something a bit special for entertaining friends or dinner on a tray in front of the telly.

Recipes entered into the competition will be featured on the website, so anyone can try their hand cooking those which appeal.

There are eight categories representing different mealtimes and moods. The best recipes in each category will be short-listed and their creators invited to take part in a national TV Cook Off on Channel 5.

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I’m very pleased to be part of the judging panel and I’ll be partnering with Jamie Theakston to look after the Talk and Fork category. Not every meal with friends involves a dinner party – sometimes we just want to rustle up something simple and comforting that we can enjoy while having a good old natter. For Talk and Fork, we’re looking for casual and easy meals that can be eaten with just a fork, relaxing on the sofa with friends or family.

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Over coming weeks, I’ll be interviewing Jamie Theakston about his food loves and hates, his skills in the kitchen and asking him what makes a great Talk and Fork dish for him.

And of course, I’ll let you know how the search for the nation’s best real food cooks is progressing. I’m looking forward to attending the filming and, hopefully, tasting the finalists’ dishes!

Do you have a great recipe you’d like to enter? Find out more about all eight categories and how to submit your recipe to the challenge, at the Tesco Real Food Challenge website.

Lastly, if you have any food-related questions to suggest for my interview with Jamie, please let me know via comments or email. Thanks!

 

On Saturday 14th May, Mamta’s Kitchen celebrated it’s 10th anniversary by holding our first ever cookery class!

In those 10 years, the site has had over 7 million visitors from international visitors keen to investigate over 1,400 recipes contributed by Mamta, family and friends and readers.

Three intrepid food lovers attended the day, held at my parents’ home in Bedfordshire.

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Feedback

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A rundown of the day

On arrival at 10 am, our students were greeted with lassi, cumin biscuits and peanut biscuits whilst being introduced to mum and each other, given recipe folders with all the recipes for the day, and chose from my random pile of aprons. It wasn’t long before we were in the kitchen!

Mum ensured that the students had a lot of hands on experience, having them prepare the ingredients, measure out and mix in the spices and do most of the cooking. She would demonstrate where needed, before handing over to them. Throughout the day, the students felt, smelled and tasted at each stage, to help them recognise the correct balance of flavours and consistency of the various stages of each recipe, next time they make any of the dishes at home.

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The first dish we started making was the last one we’d eat – my grandmother’s recipe for Vermicelli Milk Pudding (Senvian Kheer). This dish took quite some time, frying the vermicelli and slowly reducing the milk, stirring regularly. We continued checking this throughout much of the morning, until it was finally ready and then popped it into the fridge to cool ready for the evening.

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Next we prepared the two marinades for the paneer malai dish, switching the cubed paneer to the second marinade later that morning, before oven baking shortly before lunch.

A couple of simple salads were made next – a mooli and tomato one and a peanut, cucumber and tomato one. They were popped into the fridge until lunch time.

During our morning break, the students enjoyed a relaxed tour of mum’s beautiful garden, which looks stunning at this time of year, full of blooming flowers and vegetables.

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It took some time to prepare all the vegetables and the two batters for the two types of pakoras we made, my mum’s regular pakoras and my aunt Geeta’s mixed pakoras. We cooked these just before lunch so we could eat them hot and fresh.

Lunch was quite a feast – far too many delicious pakoras (served with some green coriander chutney mum and I had made the previous night) plus the two salads, the paneer and several of mum’s home-made pickles.

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In the afternoon we made a fabulous kofta meatball curry. An accidental mix up between sweet paprika and hot chilli powder meant a fast thinking rescue of the curry gravy, but it allowed mum to show that mistakes happen even for experienced cooks, and that most can be well recovered! And it took just a few moments to make a cooling mint raita to serve alongside.

During the afternoon break, mum made an aromatic masala chai which we enjoyed outside in the garden.

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The class also made stuffed baby aubergines, using traditional mustard oil, a very Indian ingredient and flavour. They also made another recipe from my grandmother in the form of a simple but tasty urad dal.

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Fish was coated in a simple marinade and popped in the fridge for a few hours. Just before dinner, we retrieved it, coated each piece in a dry flour and spice mix before frying and serving hot.

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With such a large array of dishes (and salads leftover from lunch) mum used her smaller rice-cooker to make a pea rice pilau which cooked quietly in the corner while the students got stuck in rolling and cooking rotis and pooris. They fried the fish at the same time – one definitely needs multi-tasking skills for this course!

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We sat down to an early dinner and had so many dishes I had to put several onto a side table.

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Alongside what the students had cooked, we had some poppadoms that mum and I had prepared the previous night, mum’s delicious pickles and some fresh pickled onion she’d also made for the class to try. Plus a mystery dish she’d made the previous day, a turnip curry – the students were asked to guess what it might be before mum revealed the ingredients!

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We only just had room for dessert!

There were lots of leftovers which I packaged up in lots and lots of takeaway containers, so each of our students left with enough food for another meal for two!

Fundraising

As promised, we donated £60 per student to the Khushboo Welfare Society. Khushboo Welfare Society is a small, voluntary NGO in Gurgaon (near Delhi), which provides multidisciplinary education for the development and rehabilitation of children, adolescents and young adults with mental and multiple disabilities. This is something that is not widely available in India, even today. The charity are very pleased to have received this support.

Next time

We know our three students enjoyed the day.

However, we are intending to make a few tweaks. Our schedule for the morning was a little ambitious, so we’ll likely scale back by cutting out the salads, and possibly replacing the paneer with a simpler and quicker dish. The afternoon schedule went very well so we’ll likely stick to it pretty much as it is for the next class. The range of dishes we chose seemed to be appreciated and give the students a range of techniques and tastes, so we’ll stick to most of the same or similar.

We also have plans to do a specialist class on making Indian pickles, chutneys and ketchups.

And we’re thinking of doing another focusing on a variety of Indian breads.

Interested?

We’re currently working on dates and details for future courses. We’d love to hear from you on what you’d be most interested in.

Get in touch by email with your ideas and suggestions.

Subscribe to our email mailing list for information on future courses. (The list will only be used to send you information about Mamta’s Kitchen Cooking Classes and nothing else).

 

I have a confession. Until a couple of months ago, I had never made pasta. Not once!

So when I was invited by Hubbub to attend a pasta and risotto course run by Anna Colquhoun, the Culinary Anthropologist, I was delighted.

Anna is living the dream many hobby food lovers harbour. She gave up a high level job to study at the Tante Marie Cooking School in San Francisco, and then took more specialised courses at other schools, including the San Francisco Baking Institute. This was followed by internships at a number of restaurants including Alice Waters’ famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Anna and her husband Matt then embarked on a year of travelling around Europe, Turkey and North and West Africa, soaking up all they could learn about cuisines as varied as Spanish, Slovakian and Senegalese. Anna researched and learned as much as she could about how to cook the food she and Matt encountered.

On getting back home, she was asked to author Alistair Sawday’s Eat Slow Britain, relating the stories of 88 British food business from pig farmers to cheese-makers to bakers to vegetable growers to restaurants and more. All had in common a shared belief in slow food values.

And she also converted her home kitchen into a large welcoming space that is perfect for the small-group cooking classes she now runs.

Hubbub, based in the Arsenal/ Finsbury Park area, are a small business aiming to help Londoners make use of their local independent food suppliers. Customers can order via Hubbub from local shops currently including Frank Godfrey Family Butcher, Fin & Flounder, Earth Natural Foods, La Fromagerie, Saponara Italian Delicatessen, The Barnsbury Grocer, Hansen & Lydersen, Paul A. Young Fine Chocolates and Ottolenghi. The advantage to the customer is that, instead of paying delivery charges from all the invidual stores, Hubbub arrange collections, collate your order and deliver it to you in one go, and for one charge. At the moment, much to my dismay, they don’t cover North Finchley – their range is most of Highbury, Islington, Finsbury Park, Stoke Newington, Tufnell Park and Kentish Town. But they plan to roll out their model further afield, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

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We started a little late, but after a quick introduction from Anna, we got stuck in, starting by each making our own pasta dough (see recipe below).

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Anna favours doing this traditionally, by hand… which involves making a caldera of flour, breaking the eggs into it and then carefully mixing flour from the inner caldera walls with the eggs, without causing a breach and having the eggs escape! After what seems an age, the dough finally comes together, though it’s a really hard dough, and kneading it is difficult.

This is where experience is so important – Anna assures us that a hard dough is not a bad thing, and that it’s actually helpful, since the dough will soften and become much more elastic after resting. Somewhat dubious, we each divide our dough into two pieces, wrap in cling film, label with our names and leave to one side to rest.

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Whilst the dough rests, we make two fillings, one of ricotta and herbs and another of roasted butternut squash and parmesan cheese. We split into two groups for this, each group making one of the two fillings.

Fillings done and popped into the fridge, we retrieve our pasta dough. And just as promised, when we open them up, mine has just the right texture – soft and elastic yet firm.

Anna teaches us how to press our dough through the hand-cranked pasta machines and we’re grateful we’re in teams, as turning the crank, feeding the long ribbons of dough in and gently catching them as they come back out takes more than two hands!

If the dough gets too sticky, we sprinkle with flour, which it absorbs as it goes through the press again. But if it’s dry enough, we simply use a little semolina, less finely ground which means it doesn’t get absorbed into the dough so easily, and that stops the folds of dough sticking, but can be brushed off the surface easily when ready.

Some of the dough we cut into maltagliati and some into papardelle.

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first image courtesy of Anna Colquhoun

From the rest we make ravioli and tortellini, learning how to remove air bubbles, seal and shape.

The finished pasta is left to one side while we move on to make two risottos, a wild mushroom one to be served with truffle oil and a pea and parmesan one. Again, we split into two groups and one group makes each risotto. My team make the mushroom one.

Pete and I often make risotto at home – simple recipes using home-made chicken stock and adding either home-grown leeks with blue cheese or leftover roast chicken meat with spring onions.

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As soon as the risottos are ready, we grab plates, serve ourselves and sit down at the big kitchen table. By this time, I’m absolutely starving, so the hot, filling risotto is very welcome indeed. And whilst the thrown-together ones Pete and I make are always tasty, I admiringly admit that these two are definitely better!

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The course is running late – it’s a new one and Anna says she may have been over-ambitious about how much we could achieve in the time, so rather than cooking the pasta together and sitting down to eat at the table, Anna quickly demonstrates a mozzarella, basil & cherry tomatoes sauce and a gorgonzola, spinach & walnuts one, which we quickly taste, standing around the work station.

We are also invited to take some of the filled pasta with us to cook and enjoy at home.

And of course, we leave with all the recipes for the pasta and risotto we have made during the day.


Anna’s Basic Fresh Egg Pasta Dough Recipe

Fresh pasta dough can be made with just flour and water, or with a mixture of eggs and water, with whole eggs and/or egg yolks. The more egg you use the easier the dough will be to handle and cook, and the more yolks you use the richer its golden colour will be. Use genuinely free range eggs, as it is the hens’ diet of green things which makes their egg yolks orange. If you don’t have special ‘OO’ pasta flour (which is very fine, with a high protein content), you can use regular plain flour and the recipe will still work.

Makes approximately 600g (enough for 8 starters or 4 main courses)

Ingredients:
500g ‘typo OO’ pasta flour
4 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
salt
semolina flour

Method:

  • Mound the flour onto a clean work surface and create a large well inside so it looks like the crater of an exploded volcano. Crack eggs and the extra yolk into the well and add a generous pinch of salt.
  • Use a fork to whisk the eggs, then start bringing in the sides of the crater and incorporating flour. Keep mixing until you have a thick paste. At this point it may be easier to use your hands to knead in the remaining flour. Incorporate as much as possible – you want a stiff, smooth dough. If it seems too dry, sprinkle over a little water using your fingertips. Knead for 10 minutes – it will become smoother.
  • Cut the dough in two and wrap each piece tightly in clingfilm. Set aside for 30 minutes. If you like, you can make the dough several hours in advance, even the night before, in which case keep it in the fridge.
  • Assemble your pasta rolling machine and unwrap a piece of dough. Lightly dust a large area of work surface next to the machine with flour. Squidge the dough into a rectangular block, with one end tapered so that it can fit into the machine. Dust it with a little flour. With the machine set to its widest setting (usually 1), roll the dough through. Fold it in three like a business letter, prod it all over with your fingertips to seal, and repeat the process, feeding one of the open ends into the machine first. Keep repeating until the dough is smooth and silky. If it is sticking to the rollers you need to dust with more flour. If it is cracking up it may be getting too dry and you should use less or no flour.
  • Now feed the dough through each of the settings, getting thinner each time, until you get to the thinnest (usually 6). You only need go through each setting once, and this time don’t fold the dough between rolls. You should end up with a long, thin sheet of fine pasta, the width of the machine.
  • Sprinkle plenty of semolina on a lined baking sheet. Cut the pasta into your desired shape and store on the baking sheet dusted with extra semolina so that the pieces don’t stick. Cover with clingfilm and let rest for half an hour before cooking. Or keep it in the fridge and use within a day or two.
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil and season generously with salt. Shake any excess semolina off the pasta and boil until al dente – usually just a few minutes. Unless your pot is huge you may need to do this in batches so as not to crowd the pasta. Drain pasta and let steam dry for a minute to remove excess moisture. Toss with your prepared pasta sauce or simply drizzle with extra virgin olive oil or meted butter and grind over some black pepper.

I really enjoyed the day and learned a great deal. My fellow students were similarly delighted, and we all left with a new confidence in making pasta at home. I particularly appreciated the small class size and the personal instruction it afforded.

Find out about upcoming classes at Anna’s website.

Kavey Eats was a guest of Hubbub and the Culinary Anthropologist.

 

Way back in the mists of time (otherwise known as March), I was invited to be a judge for the Academy of Chocolate‘s Awards for 2011.

I was able to attend judging dates for the filled chocolate categories and spent two days tasting and assessing my way through a very large number of chocolates indeed. For every single chocolate we wrote down individual marks for appearance, aroma, taste, texture and finish as well as comments, to be given to the producers as feedback. For any chocolate-lovers amongst you, whilst it was an honour to be on the judging panel, and a great opportunity to sample a wide range of chocolate, it was actually hard work giving fair and consistent marks and feedback to every chocolate tasted, from first through to last.

It was also hard going as there were, amongst the many excellent chocolates submitted, some truly awful contenders, a few which I had to spit out and a couple which actually made me gag. There were also a surprising number with strongly burned chocolate or using poor quality ingredients. Luckily, these were in the minority, and most chocolates were average, good or great!

Judging was anonymous, with each chocolate delivered one at a time, with a unique code assigned to it. Scores and comments were hand written onto tasting sheets and then carefully collated into a spreadsheet, so scores could be averaged out and comments recorded.

The results for 2011 were announced in mid-April. You can view a list of gold, silver and bronze awards for the many filled chocolate and chocolate bar categories, here.

Once our judging duties were completed, I asked for identification of my favourites – those which I’d scored the most highly, and really really liked.

Here are the 7 I noted down as my top scorers – as you can see, every one of them did very well in the awards!

  • Pralus – Cubissmo Praliné Maison with Hazelnuts, Almonds & Pistachios – Gold. Best in category “filled chocolate – nuts”

  • William Curley – Muscovado Caramel – Gold. Best overall filled chocolate. Judged in category “filled chocolate – caramel”

  • Rococo – Grenada & Laphroaig whisky – Gold. Best in category “filled chocolate – alcohol”

  • Cocoa Red – Coconut Pandan – Gold. In category “filled chocolate – other flavours”

  • Iain Burnett – Assam & Green Tea Cardamom – Silver. In category “filled chocolate – spice and herb”

  • Lauden – Salted Caramel – Gold. In category “filled chocolate – caramel”

  • Paul a Young – Chateau Civrac – Silver. In category “filled chocolate – alcohol”

Well done to all the award winners!

 

It was some time ago that I went to visit the Divine office near Tower Bridge to find out more about Fair Trade in general and what I dubbed Extra Fair Trade – how Divine do business.

In a nutshell, whereas most Fair Trade chocolate producers pay the FT premium for the cocoa, but then process, market and sell it themselves, Divine buys their cocoa from a large cocoa farming cooperative in Ghana called Kuapa Kokoo. They pay the FT premium for the cocoa, benefiting the farmers in that way. But, more importantly, Kuapa Kokoo is also the majority shareholder of Divine, and so the farmers claim a share of the profits from the sale of the finished chocolate products too.

Read more about this in my original post.

As part of Fair Trade Fortnight, back in March, Divine organised for two farmers to visit the UK as ambassadors for their 45,000 member farmers’ co-operative, Kuapa Kokoo.

I was invited to meet the two farmers during their time in London and had the opportunity to interview them.

Like many other women farmers who belong to the co-operative, Fatima Ali and Harriet Boatemaa have been able to become financially independent and support their extended families. They have also put themselves forward for elected positions within the co-operative organisation, allowing them to represent their communities and help other farmers do better too.

At just 29, Fatima is the youngest person ever to be voted onto Kuapa Kokoo’s National Executive. She is the recorder of the Alikrom Kuapa Kokoo Society and President of Akontombra District in the Western Region. Fatima joined Kuapa Kokoo 9 years ago and is very proud of her 5 acre farm. She takes care of her son alone, has helped her father put up a building for their family and has also supported her brother through secondary school.

Harriet Boatemaa is 27 years old and has been a member of the co-operative for 4 years. She was introduced to the co-operative by her father, who used to be the recorder for the Jonakrom Kuapa Kokoo Society and was able to pay for Harriet’s education because of the financial security he gained. Now Harriet is the local recorder and she takes care of her younger siblings with proceeds from her 7 acre farm, given to her by her father. She hopes to one day be elected as the co-operative President so that she too can be a role model to inspire other youngsters to stay and work in their villages and farms rather than migrate to the city in search of non-existent jobs.

Apologies for the poor image and sound quality of the videos – this doesn’t do justice to the achievements of these two amazing ladies.

 

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The Compass Brewery is a small, relatively new outfit based in Oxfordshire with a small but interesting range of bottled beer. They don’t appear to bottle condition (based largely on the lack of yeast – the labels are rather unclear on the matter) but we won’t hold that against them until we taste the results!

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First up is Isis Pale Ale, a 4.9% relatively dark ‘pale’ ale. It pours with a fine and generous head that fades quite rapidly and with quite a rich amber colour. There’s a floral nose, with sweet honey and those are carried on in the flavour, along with richer dried fruit notes and quite a kick of lingering bitterness. The bubbles give a nice mouthfeel without being over fizzy; it’s almost a very drinkable session beer but that bitterness is just a touch too much for my taste.

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Next, The King’s Shipment IPA, a strong beer at 6% and distinctly paler in the glass than the Isis. It has a shorter lived, more open head that quickly fades to nothing. There are some hops on the nose but also very sweet, fruity syrup notes. The strength is noticeable on tasting, and that sweet maltiness from the smell continues in the taste, with a subtle bitterness at the end that manages to stop it from getting too sickly sticky sweet. It doesn’t have the hopped punch I expect from an IPA; it’s a perfectly acceptable pint but it’s not exciting me.

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Lastly is Baltic Night Stout, at 4.8%. Pour deep, dark coke-like brown with no real head. The immediate smell from opening the bottle is of dark chocolate, shifting to more of a roasted coffee once it’s poured. The chocolate start reappears on tasting, and starts out quite nicely but soon fades into a fairly unremarkable, sharply burnt bitterness. Unlike the other beers there is no real sweetness to it, and considering it’s a stout, has a very light, weak body. I normally prefer darker beers but I have to confess I’m disappointed.

Overall, I’m not blown away by any of these beers; they all seem to be slightly out of balance to me, the Pale Ale – for me the winner of the bunch – with slightly uncontrolled bitterness, the IPA lacking hops and the Stout lacking body. There’s nothing actively wrong with at least the first two, but I wouldn’t seek them out above other beers.

 
Brunch

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One fine and sunny Saturday morning, earlier this month, I made my way to London Fields to enjoy a very fine brunch organised by Jordans Cereals and laid on by the lovely Uyen of the Fernandez & Leluu supper club.

The brunch was to introduce a group of us to the latest product from Jordans Cereals, their Creations Range. As well as trying the two new cereals, we were also treated to a huge selection of goodies from the most incredible lobster salad (with a genius passion fruit, lime and honey dressing) to home-made bacon and cheese pastry whirls, quiches and muffins and more, not to mention the tea, coffee, juices and prosecco – yes, prosecco in the morning! Oh and some fabulous panna cotta to finish…

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Conservation Grade

16 months ago I met some of the Jordans Cereal team, including one of the founders, Bill Jordan.

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I had lots and lots of fun using some of their Country Crisp cereal in a cake recipe, learning about how the product was developed and making up my own perfect combination of ingredients to take home in a box with my face on it!

I was particularly happy to learn, from Bill, that all the cereal used in Jordans Cereals is grown to Conservation Grade (by more than 50 farmers around Britain). What this means is that the farmers are paid a premium for their produce in return for creating nature-friendly habitats on 10% of their farmed land, thereby encouraging biodiversity – they plant wildflowers, clover and other plants to provide pollen, nectar and food for insects and birds, provide grassland habitat that will shelter spiders, beetles and small mammals and support wildlife by retaining hedges, ditches, old barns, ponds and woodland. As a very keen wildlife enthusiast and amateur wildlife photographer, wildlife and habitat conservation is a cause I’m passionate about, so this initiative is something that makes me very happy indeed. You can learn more at the Conservation Grade website.

Creations

Like their other products, the Creation range is made from Conservation Grade oats and all the other ingredients used also adhere to high environmental standards, with no artificial colours, flavours, preservatives or GMOs.

Whereas the original granola range is super crunchy (which I really love) and the Country Crisp range gives a much lighter, puffier crunch (which I like, but not as much as the original granola), the new Creations cereals are soft and chewy. The oats are toasted lightly, sweetened a little with honey, combined with a little oil (to soften and preserve without the aid of artificial preserving agents) and then just a small number of ingredients such as cranberries, apples, cinnamon are added.

Ruth Fergyson, Head of New Product Development, explained that some of their potential customers find some of their cereals, those with lots of added fruits and nuts, often have an ingredient they don’t like and which puts them off. With the simpler combinations in Creations, Jordans are offering something to those consumers. The range is also designed to appeal to those who want a softer cereal than the typical hard granolas.

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The two flavours in the range so far are Juicy Cranberry & Golden Honey and Baked Apple & a Hint of Cinnamon. Of the two, I prefer the cranberry one, which surprises me as I am not usually a cranberry fan, but these are soft and sweet with just a hint of sharp that contrasts with the honey.

Getting Inventive

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Between the cereal and Uyen’s enormous feast, Rachel Kerr, Jordans’ Head of Brand Communications, invited us to try our hand at coming up with the next Creations flavour combinations using lots of ingredients provided in bowls along the table as inspiration to kick start our imaginations.

Challenge

With a beautiful green KitchenAid Artisan stand mixer offered as a prize for the winner, I quickly got my thinking cap on to see if I might be the one to suggest that perfect combination of textures and flavours for the next Creations… something that would appeal to the development team at Jordans and, most importantly, to their consumers.

I came up with a few ideas… my first one was figs with vanilla (plus the honey mixed in with the oats), a combination I think would be particularly nice to eat with natural yoghurt… I then wondered whether one could combine natural yoghurt into the cereal itself, much like those yoghurt covered nuts and dried fruit one can buy from health shops.

The next combination that jumped out at me was sticky dates with chewy toffee, a duo which works so well in sticky toffee puddings…

Ever sweet toothed, I also wondered whether a mocha combination would be pounced on by breakfast cereal eaters, or left on the shelf as being too indulgent for the morning… it would depend if they were coffee and pain au chocolat kind of people! As a big fan of mocha drinks and of coffee chocolate, I know I’d enjoy it!

But in the end, I chose to think about the adage that “what grows together goes together” and tested my favourite suggestion for a new Creations flavour:

What Grows Together Goes Together
Kavey’s Apricot & Pistachio Creation

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Pistachios are what are referred to as “culinary nuts” – not actually nuts, botanically speaking, but classified as such by our culinary usage. They likely originated in Western Asia/ the Middle East, and the region remains the main producer of pistachios today, with Iran growing more than any other nation. Their shells remind me of cupped hands, clasping the nut in a tight grasp. Cracking them open one after the other, to reveal their pretty purple-red skins and the pale green flesh inside, is part of what makes eating them so enjoyable. Pistachios taste a little like almonds, but with a softer texture and more subtle yet distinct flavour.

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Apricots are also thought to have originated in Western Asia, most likely in Armenia, though they’ve been cultivated so long, this is not altogether certain. These days, the largest producers are Turkey, Iran and Italy. Part of the prunus genus, which also includes plums, cherries, peaches and almonds, the soft amber-coloured fruits are a lovely balance of sweet and tart. Surprisingly, for a lover of fresh fruit, I adore dried apricots even more than fresh ones, particularly the meltingly soft, dark brown ones with their subtle caramel flavour and sweetness.

Interestingly, apricot kernels are widely used too – often so sweet they are substituted for almonds, and forming a key ingredient in amaretto liqueurs. Perhaps, edible apricot kernels might also be mixed into the cereal as well, for a little added crunch?

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Trying out my combination

Of course, I couldn’t propose my creation without testing it first, so I improvised. Using the cereal from my box of Juicy Cranberry & Golden Honey Creations, I discarded the cranberries (to be eaten later!) and mixed it with the Turkish apricots and Iranian pistachios I purchased especially.

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I thought the combination worked wonderfully well, both visually and in terms of taste and texture.

A lovely thought to leave you with:

The Turkish have an idiom “bundan iyisi Şam’da kayısı” the meaning of which is “it doesn’t get any better than this“. The literal translation, “the only thing better than this is an apricot in Damascus” tells you all you need to know – for something that is the very best it can be is a delicious apricot from Damascus!

 

Regular visitors to London’s Soho, China Town and Piccadilly areas cannot failed to have noticed the huge shiny edifice that has gone up in the place of the old Swiss Centre. Pale, sleek and shiny, it stands out like a sore thumb from the smaller, and mostly much older, buildings surrounding it, especially those at the lower end of Wardour Street.

This is the new W Hotel, part of a well known global chain of modern and (self-labelled) cool hotels.

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A friend had enjoyed a great lunch in the hotel’s Spice Market restaurant so was keen for us to visit for dinner when we last met up, earlier in April.

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I quite liked the funky interior – a blend of pseudo-Asian and funky modern.

But I was put off immediately by the low table and chairs – within 5 minutes I was fidgeting about trying to work out where to put my legs, within half an hour, I was really uncomfortable and by the time I was left I felt I’d been shoehorned into a kiddie play house for a day. For this reason alone, I will not be going back, regardless of the food…

Still, I was dining with a dear friend, we both had lots to catch up on, so we quickly ordered and got on with the business at hand – chatting.

The menu meanders across much of South-East Asia. My friend warned that portion sizes were “huge”, so we restrained ourselves. In fact, I didn’t find them any larger than standard, though our two starters and two mains were plenty between us.

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We both started with raspberry lychee bellinis, which were very good indeed. My friend went on to have some wine. I stuck to tap water, which the staff refilled regularly.

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Salt and Pepper Squid with Yuzu Dip and Pickled Chilli (£9) was so so; a bit chewy and uninspiring. My (cheap) local takeaway does better.

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Fragrant Mushroom Egg Rolls with Galangal Emulsion (£7.50) were an improvement, though still didn’t wow. The dip didn’t really go well with the rolls, though they were decent enough.

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The Nonya Seafood Laksa with Gulf Shrimp and Scallop (£22) was very tasty. Despite the poncy foam with dribbles of orange and green oils across it, the flavours were excellent and the prawn and scallop of good size, though only one of each, with just a couple of other pieces of seafood besides.

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The Grilled Rib Eye with Garlic, Coriander and Sesame (£24) was also delicious, served over a bed of pak choi and with a decent serving of that vivid, punchy sauce over the top. I really liked this.

The welcome was warm and service remained friendly and helpful throughout the evening… perhaps because there were so very few other diners to look after? Of course, that’s not surprising, given the prices – I assume they are set to match the expectations of the hotel clientele but they are way too high for the area, given its proximity to China Town.

Given those prices, plus the hit-miss quality of the food, this is not likely to be a destination I visit again.

Spice Market on Urbanspoon

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