When I was a child, I never could understand grownups telling me that time seems to pass faster the older you’d get. “Another year has whizzed by”, they’d say, as I furrowed my head and thought, “no it hasn’t!” What’s more, I couldn’t foresee that I would ever come to feel the same way or say those same things. And yet here I am, marvelling bemusedly at how fast another year has whizzed by and, hang on a second, wasn’t it just a few weeks ago I was trying to remember to write 2013 rather than 2012?

And yet, when I look back through the posts I’ve shared through the year, I can say that it’s been another wonderful year, regardless of how quickly it seems to have sped past.

 

January

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On the recipe front, I loved Billy Law’s Coca Cola Chicken and was delighted with my Walnut Brittle.

The Apple, Date & Ginger Chutney I made went on to win me first prize for chutneys at our local allotment show later in the year.

I also enjoyed reliving some of our first trip to Japan the previous year, with a post on Mitarashi Dango and an incredible Kaiseki Ryori meal at Kankaso Ryokan in Nara.

February

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I was thrilled to be able to share my favourite food photographs on the back of my new Moo mini blog cards.

For Christmas 2012 I made a strikingly colourful Beetroot and Lemon Zest Cured Trout, finally sharing the recipe I used just in time for Valentine’s day. If that sounds too time-intensive, I also made some really quick No Bake Mini Lemon Ricotta Cheesecakes. Probably the recipe that excited me the most (and has kept on giving us pleasure as we work our way through the jars) was How To Can (Bottle) Apple Pie Filling. We’ve made variations of the simple King Oyster Mushroom & Cream Pasta a number of times since.

On a more gadget-focused note, I reviewed a spice and nut grinder from Cuisinart.

March

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I wouldn’t usually include a giveaway in my annual roundup but the chocolate badger from Bettys really caught readers’ imaginations and I’ll be sharing further news from that later this year.

Still reliving the holiday to Japan, I posted the last of my six posts about Japanese temples and shrines we visited and took you on a Meander through Kyoto’s Nishiki Market. Back in London, I found a taste of Japan at Bincho Yakitori in Soho.

Things were quiet in my kitchen, but the No Churn Jelly Belly Ice Cream Recipe was fun!

April

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You’re probably realising right about now that I remained obsessed with Japan for the rest of the year! In April I wrote about Yuba and Japanese Kit Kat flavours.

There were more recipes on the blog including Butter, Sage and Lemon Roasted Chicken, Cheat’s Chocolate Cherry Baked Alaska, an incredible Roasted Aubergine Macaroni Cheese recipe by Gastrogeek, tasty Japanese Chicken Katsu Curry Rice and a Billingsgate Fish & Egg Pie.

May

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Pinterest and I are good friends. I explained why I love it and how I use it, here.

I sneaked in another post about Japan, sharing our little rest stop for Amazake and Warabi Mochi at Bunnosuke Jaya.

And there was lots more cooking including a Chicken Tarragon Pasta Bake I urge you to try, a Simple Miso Cod which we served with pak choi and rice, a delicious Home-made Tomato Soup and classic Garlic & Rosemary Roast Lamb.

June

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That roast lamb made a delicious leftovers meal of Lamb & Spring Onion Hoisin Lettuce Wraps.

There were fabulous 3D Safari Cookies. I tasted the best ham in the whole world.

Supperclubs have been steadily growing in number and popularity for the last few years, but I don’t get to many. I did have a lovely evening at a Japanese supperclub hosted by The London Foodie.

Oh and I got a new Samsung S4 phone, which I still love!

July

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In late May we returned to Islay for the whisky festival, our third time attending. I loved up some Squat Lobsters and Crab.

We had some grand days out to Bettys in Harrogate and to Edible Ornamentals near Bedford.

I experienced the shock of finding great food a stone’s throw from where I was working in Watford.

My favourite recipe was a feather light Smoked Cheese Gnocchi, another we’ve made again since. You could follow that with a refreshing Lemon, Limoncello & Thyme Sorbet.

August

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I never did write up the lovely weekend I spend attending the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery. But I did share an excellent guest post on the basics of Cooking a Stir Fry, written by my friend Diana, who I met over the weekend.

We had a lovely meal out in Naamyaa Cafe in Islington.

Recipes this month included Flat Peach Tart Tatin, a simple and very versatile Pea, New Potato & Goat’s Cheese Frittata and a Heart Attack Potato Salad laden with bacon and gherkins.

September

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A quiet month on the blog, as I was immersed in planning for our second trip to Japan.

I wrote all about the history of apples and our educational visit to the National Fruit Collections at Brogdale.

September recipes included a Persia Meets Mozambique Peri Peri Baked Chicken & Yoghurt Rice, Spicy Sungold Tomato Ketchup and Easy Butternut Squash Soup with Candied Bacon.

And a little tip on using DIY teabags to immerse spices into one’s cooking!

October

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Another winner in Watford (who’d have thunk it?) was Grandpa’s Sushi in the covered market. I also wrote about dim sum and tapas restaurant visits.

In the kitchen, I made some quick Bacon Baked Eggs, a chef-inspired salad and a classic Apple Pie, with home-grown apples.

And just before we headed back to Japan for our second trip, Pete spent the day with the London Brewing Company in The Bull in Highgate, creating a collaboration Coffee Porter.

November

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I enjoyed hot chocolate and fudge at Camden market.

My friend Diana wrote another guest post, this time sharing some comprehensive tips on making Egg Fried Rice, with many variations. Pete made a really tasty Pork and Apple Stroganoff Pie with Cheddar Crust.

I enjoyed some excellent food at The Sportsman in Kent and Duck and Waffle, in the City.

And I wrote a letter to my beautiful niece.

December

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This month has been altogether more Christmas-focused with my 2013 Gift Guide full of ideas for the best presents, my recommendations for bottles to buy for a sweet-toothed alcoholic celebration and a review of marzipan fruits.

I also introduced Cocoa Runners, a great way to buy the very best bean-to-bar chocolate from around the world.

In a fit of nostalgia, I did a restaurant review of childhood favourite, a Beefeater restaurant.

And my last recipe of the year was a really old classic – Mrs Beeton’s recipe for scones, served with home made black cherry jam.

 

That’s it, the year is done. Hope you’ve had a great one too!

Wishing you happiness, health and success in the new year.

 

Sometimes I fall behind in writing about cookery books I’ve accepted for review. There is always a stack of books waiting for my attention, and I often feel vaguely guilty that I have already covered books that came in more recently than books that have been waiting a while. So I was delighted when a new friend agreed to take one from the pile and write a guest review about how she got on cooking from it. She chose French Food Safari by Maeve O’Meara and Guillaume Brahimi. Over to Tara Dean and her friend Dawn.

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I met Kavey through a friend when we needed somewhere to crash for the weekend whilst we went to Last Night of the Proms in Hyde Park. I had heard much about Kavey, it was a delight to eventually meet both Kavey who eats and Pete who drinks. I live in Bristol and keep myself very busy. I work for an international sexual health company, run my own sports massage business and am studying for my Masters in Occupational Psychology which I will complete early next year. In my spare time I do Bikram yoga, go to the gym and spend time with my amazing friends.

Whilst at Kavey’s I raided her sweet and chocolate box, as a blogger she gets sent lots of samples and so I had a great time, we inevitably got to talking about food and blogging. Kavey had been sent a recipe book to review and was finding her time limited, I was excited and up for the challenge so she asked me to take the book, cook, eat and review. So here we are, I hope you enjoy reading about my experience.

I have a wonderful friend called Dawn who writes the dessert part of this review, we met a few years ago as we both started out our studies in Psychology. As a fellow northerner, she’s from the east I’m from the west, we both love good homely food that fills your belly and makes you feel nice and warm inside. I take my food seriously and don’t like to eat too much junk food. I am known in the office for my interesting concoctions, when I work late on a Thursday my manager stops by the kitchen specifically to inspect what I’m eating. I’ve often been asked at work if I’m vegetarian even when there is meat in the dish because I am eating something homemade which contains vegetables. People are taken aback when I start work at 8am and I have managed to cook a curry or soup for my lunch before arriving. Life’s too short to eat food that does not taste good. I pride myself in making quick, inexpensive and healthy meals. Now that’s not quite how things happen when you cook from a French cooking book. My point is I can relate to people taking food seriously.

I cooked the main and thankfully Dawn did the dessert. We both thought we had picked a fairly easy none complicated dessert for her. One of the phrases I remember from the evening was from her husband Marc when she asked him to help her with the puff pastry. His reply was ‘No. I’ve made puff pastry once’. He meant you only ever made fresh puff pastry once, learn your lesson, and then buy pre-made ready to roll forever more. Knowing that, there are far more fun and less stressful ways you can spend your Saturday afternoon.

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Lamb Navarin

I chose the Lamb Navarin recipe which in our terms is a French Lamb Stew. First stop was the butchers. The recipe calls for 1kg boned lamb shoulder and 1kg forequarter lamb racks, cut between every second rib. After showing my butcher the recipe book we decided it would be half the price, more meat and much easier to have 2 kg of lamb shoulder which he boned and then I could dice. This was very simple to cut and led to a much less messy eating experience and left me with more money to spend on red wine which fits into my northern values. The recipe says to use chicken stock for which it provides a recipe for – ain’t no one got time for that – or water – I compromised and used stock cubes which I do not think took any flavour away. I had never heard of Kipfler potatoes and neither had the assistant at my local greengrocers. I did a quick internet search and up popped a picture of a long nobbly potato. We ended up with Anya potatoes which hopefully did not take anything away.

I found the recipe well written and easy to follow other than wrestling with Dawn for page viewing. There is a point in the recipe which instructs you to strain the sauce through a fine sieve. I really did not see the point of this and as I was cooking in a piping hot, very heavy, cast iron casserole dish I declined to follow. The result was a beautiful navarin with succulent meat and flavoursome sauce. The celeriac puree containing almost a full pack of butter was the perfect accompaniment. As much as the guests enjoyed the navarin the puree enjoyed the most praise. One guest commented that if I made it again he would like to be on the guest list.

Along with preparation you are looking at a good 3 hours to make this meal. That is without an dessert or starter. The recipe claims this dish can serve 8 – 10 people. We had 7 people to feed, no one behaved like a piglet and overfilled their plate and we had very little in the way of leftovers. I think the writer has been overly optimistic. Unless in France they have extremely small portions to allow for the many courses you would normally expect at a dinner party, which of course is entirely possible, however as a northerner I would like my main course to feel like a main. We did serve cheese between the main and the dessert. Although I have always experienced cheese to be served after dessert the author of French Food Safari says any French person knows that the cheese is served before dessert. Not wanting to appear as amateurs we stuck to tradition.

The book itself is well presented and inviting. There are sections on cheeses, meat, and very fancy desserts which you need specialist equipment to attempt. The recipes do look very inviting and I’m looking forward to trying some more…….. maybe for the next dinner party!

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Tarte Tatin by Dawn

A super friend of mine called Tara invited me to do a joint review of the new ‘French Food Safari’ and with the chitchat of good friends it was quickly decided: there would be a dinner party and it would be held in my kitchen. I offered to make dessert since this is a dish I always feel I do in a hurry when I have a dinner party. The idea of oodles of time without distraction from other dishes to prepare, felt like finally, without neglect, I was in a position to consider this dessert’s every need!

The dessert? Tarte Tatin…The perfect antidote to the autumn air. This is a dish I have enjoyed without fail on numerous occasions during my time spent living in France as a student in the 90′s. My husband is part French and always holds a certain nostalgia for this dessert since his French grandmother would often make it.

On first sight, the recipe seemed fairly straightforward. I have, on several occasions baked a Tarte Tatin so thought it near impossible that I should find myself in troubled waters. Oh how I was wrong! The recipe required me to make puff pastry. Although I have experience of making shortcrust pastry I knew straightaway that to make puff pastry you need inherent qualities such as patience, determination and time. With a flick of my hair I decided I had time on my side and should not focus on the aforementioned qualities!

Some points regarding the recipe quantities: the pastry recipe required 500ml water, 250 ml of which needed to be ice-cold. After 250ml water I found my dough to be all pasty and did not even dare to add the next vat of water. I became a little disheartened at this and wondered how on earth I could possibly inject more water into it, considering all my quantities again-had I put too little flour in? All the quantities were right so with deep breath and without further ado I made a pledge to move on and get cracking with peeling the apples. With an eye on the time and my pastry in mind, I looked forward to what I thought had to be the more straightforward part of the recipe.

After peeling, de-seeding and coring the apples I made the caramel. On the previous occasions I’ve made Tarte Tatin I have added the sugar and butter to the fruit at the time of cooking so i was a little surprised that the caramel was made separately but appreciated trying out new methods! I know that you have to e very attentive to a caramel to stop it burning so I gave it my full attention despite the knowledge my pastry was going to be crying out for affection in the fridge before long. Unfortunately what I found is that there was not enough direction in the instructions. i was starting to feel concerned about the caramel bubbling away for 8 mins with apples and then being turned up to full heat until the apples became caramelised. I was also using a cast-iron pan which does, of course, retain a lot of heat in comparison to other materials.

The apples looked golden and caramelised and picture-perfect. Time to return to the pastry again…

I started to become aware of time: with guests arriving at 8pm I was not going to have this dessert done and dusted before their arrival even though I had started at around 5:15pm. I estimated that by 8:15pm the Tarte, pastry in tow, would be ready to put in the oven. One aspect which would have really helped in making this pastry… photos. There weren’t enough photos of the various contortions this pastry required during the rolls. A picture of all four corners folded in would have been welcomed with open arms.

Three hours and 15 minutes later saw the birth of my Tarte Tatin. It looked amazing.

The taste was disappointing. Everyone agreed it tasted a little burned. A slightly burned caramel sullied the whole dish and those melt in your mouth apples were suddenly left without a plan B. The pastry was ok but nothing special, not quite what I’d expect from having toiled and troubled over it for hours… I kicked myself for not buying ready-made pastry. At least I would have had an easier time coming to terms with a burnt caramel not to mention extra time to prepare for guests.

With more handholding I could have tackled this dessert. I cook and bake a great deal with 2 small children and a husband to feed but this recipe needed a chef (as well as more photos, directions and bags of time) and that, I hasten to add, I am definitely not.

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With thanks to Tara and Dean for their review, and to Hardie Grant for review copy of French Food Safari.

 

A few months ago, after yet another session of making jam (with cherries from the Brogdale National Fruit Collection) that added fifteen more jars to the already-full-to-groaning jam cupboard, Pete decided some simple and tasty scones were just the ticket to make an inroad into the jam lake I cooked into existence.

This recipe is by Isabella Beeton, a popular 19th century author of articles and books on cooking and household management. Mrs Beeton was one of the first cookery book writers in the UK, but died just short of her 29th birthday, just a few years after her collection of articles written for her publisher husband’s magazines were collated into a book called “Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. The book was a complete guide to running a Victorian household, and included chapters on clothing, child care, managing servants, animal husbandry and much more. But the core subject of the book was about cooking, and hence it was often also referred to as Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook.

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We have a modern edition focusing on Mrs Beeton’s baking recipes, from which Pete chose this simple scone recipe.

 

Mrs Beeton’s Plain Scones

Ingredients
Fat for greasing
225 grams / 8 oz self-raising flour
2.5 ml / 0.5 teaspoon salt
25-50 grams / 1-2 oz butter
125-150 ml / 4-5 fluid oz milk
Flour for kneading
Milk or beaten egg for glazing (optional)

Method

  • Grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 200 C (fan).
  • Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Rub in the butter, then mix to a soft dough with the milk. Knead very lightly on a floured surface until smooth.
  • Roll or pat the dough out to about 1 cm thick and cut into rounds using a 6 cm cutter. Re-roll trimmings and cut, until all dough is used.
  • Place the scones onto the prepared baking sheet and brush the tops with milk or beaten egg, if using.
  • Bake for 10-12 minutes.
  • Cool on a wire rack.
  • Serve warm or cold.

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We love ours with clotted cream and jam, though whipped double cream will do when clotted cream is unavailable. Or butter, in a pinch!

What recipe(s) do you use and how do you eat yours? And what’s your stance on the jam or cream first debate?

 

Luton doesn’t have many good restaurants. It had even fewer when I was a kid. But we went out to dinner regularly as a family, either to the local Beefeater or, in later years, to our favourite local Chinese restaurant, long since closed.

Nearly without fail, my sister and I would order prawn cocktails to start and big fat steaks, cooked medium rare and woe betide the chef who thought he knew better and sent them out medium well. Pops would delight in our weekly horror as he not only ordered his steak well done but egged them on to make sure it really was. Mum was never a big red meat fan and switched between the fish, chicken and vegetarian options.

As teens, we frequented the pub side of the Tavern instead of the restaurant, it’s probably where I had my first pint of beer, southern comfort and ice, tia maria and coke!

Until recently, I’d not been back for more than twenty years.

But recently, my sister and I decided to drag Pops out of the house for Sunday lunch while mum was away birdwatching. Since he fell off a horse in Nepal a few months ago, broke some ribs and fractured his back (he ain’t ever gonna age gracefully, not that we’d have it any other way), he’s been forced to stop his daily gym workouts and hasn’t really been able to do much walking either. We left the choice to him and he suggested the Tavern; still being a regular and knowing many of the staff by name.

Of course, it’s been refurbished since my last visit, probably a fair few times, and it was weirdly familiar and unfamiliar all at once. It’s a Beefeater pub, they’re a chain, they all look the same, you know the style…

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Feeling nostalgic, my sister and I both chose prawn cocktail (£4.99) followed by a 10oz Rib-Eye (£16.79), medium as per the waitress’ recommendation. She rightly pointed out that this fatty cut needs a bit of extra cooking to melt the fat, which makes it much tastier to eat. We added peppercorn and brandy sauce (£1.49) and upgraded the chips to Ultimate ones for an additional 69p. (That’s £18.97 for the complete dish).

Prawn cocktail was proper old school with a basic salad, lots of fairly bland but perfectly acceptable prawns drowned under a classic cloying Marie Rose sauce. Served with brown bread (and butter on request) it was exactly what I wanted. Of course, it could be improved by big fresh jumbo prawns but sometimes chefs are so keen to add their own twist that they lose sight of the pleasure of bouncy protein covered in sweet pink goo!

The rib eye steak was surprisingly good, far better texture and taste than I expected and the cooking was just right. Accompaniments were all good and whilst it wasn’t the very best steak I’ve eaten, it was certainly better than many I’ve been charged far more for in central London. It wasn’t a bargain either, I think the price is high for the restaurant but fair – with the exception of the T-bone which is £1 more, it’s the most expensive item on the menu.

Pops did comment that it was better than usual. It’s one of his regular choices and he says it’s not consistently as good as the ones we ate on this visit. It goes up and down, though it’s always the right side of acceptable.

In other good news: somewhere along the way, in the 30 or so years since our regular family visits, Pops has gradually switched from ordering his meat well done to medium rare. But he still likes to make the joke about visiting McDonald’s on the way home!

Dec 232013
 

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Husky sledding at Sweden’s Ice Hotel – © Kavita Favelle 2012

 

How to bring a little Kyoto spirituality home from your travels…

With a staggering two thousand Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, City of Temples is an apt epithet for Japan’s former imperial capital. One of the delights of a trip to Kyoto is not only visiting the famous ones in all the tourist guides but stumbling unexpectedly across so many others as you explore the city and surrounding prefecture.

But don’t worry about becoming “templed out” – not only are these places of worship and prayer compellingly beautiful, they are also hugely varied, endlessly fascinating and an excellent way to gain an insight into Japanese culture. For many Japanese, religious practices are as much about tradition and custom as they are about worship. It’s not uncommon for Japanese people to practice both Buddhism and Shintoism, for which they visit both temples and shrines on special occasions, to remember their ancestors, and to ask for help in specific matters. For a first-time visitor, it takes a little knowledge to distinguish the temples from the shrines.

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Shinto shrines are sacred places in which to pray to one or more of thousands of different kami (spirits). Created as sanctuaries for the kami, the shrines are designed to blend in with their natural surroundings. Many are associated with specific spirits; worshippers often seek out kami that can help with particular issues they are experiencing. There are shrines for pregnant women wanting a safe delivery, shrines where one can pray for a good harvest, shrines for requesting success and wealth in business, shrines to ward off evil spirits and even shrines dedicated to relationships and sexual gratification. A particular highlight of our first visit to Kyoto was a visit to Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine, where we watched a long line of young girls pass through a hole in an enormous paper-covered boulder known as The Stone of Breaking and Bonding. Wriggling through in one direction breaks bad relationships and crawling back in the other direction creates new, positive ones. Simple thatched wooden buildings echo the design of storehouses and prehistoric dwellings and are usually surrounded by a sacred grove of trees. Thick ropes hung with shimenawa (tassles) and gohei (white paper) cordon off sacred corners – they are often tied around a sacred sakaki tree known as the heart post. Entrances to Shinto shrines is usually through a torii (gate) which marks the transition from the profane to the sacred. They are often guarded by statues of lions or dogs, though at Fushimi Inari-taisha, you will find messenger foxes. This shrine is also famous for its senbon torii, paths of hundreds of torii gates snaking up the hillside, one after another. Painted bright red, they are individually paid for and donated by worshippers praying to Inari, the kami of fertility, rice and industry. Visit at sunset for the most spectacular play of light and shadow between the gates’ red pillars. The first stop for worshippers is the chozuya (water basin) to purify hands and mouths, using the long-handled ladles provided, before proceeding to the haiden (main shrine). There, a front porch features a rope, a bell and a collection box; visitors usually clap, ring the bell and make their prayers.

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It is also common to write prayers or messages for the kami. Originally, horses were given as votives, to represent the divine steed, but over time, boxes painted with their image were given instead. Nowadays, these have been replaced with wooden plaques called ema, on which personal messages are written before they are hung onto hooks provided. Ema come in different shapes – though rectangular ones are most common, we also spotted octagon, heart, rice-paddle, torii and ruler shaped plaques – the designs are varied; often colourful, intriguing and occasionally even startling! Sales of ema help support the shrines financially, so staff are very happy for visitors to buy ema as souvenirs to take home with them. They cost from 300-1000 Yen each (£2-7) and each shrine has its own designs to choose from. Shrine visitors also make small payments in exchange for o-mikuji – paper slips revealing their fortune. These can either be tied to walls of strings provided, for the resident kami to influence, or taken home.

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Buddhist temples are devoted to worshipping Buddha and the many gods within the Buddhist pantheon. As well as a main hall, where one or more statues of Buddha are located, some temples feature impressive multi-storied pagodas, a few of which – such as Yasaka Pagoda – permit public entry to the upper levels. Temples may also have kodo halls, where monks study and chant, and kyozo depositories, where sacred texts are stored. In the grounds, the many groupings of Jizo statues are impossible to ignore. Jizo is the patron of travellers and children and is most strongly associated with helping the souls of babies ­who were aborted, died during birth or as young children. Depicting a short, round, bald man the simplistically styled statues are often decorated with bibs and woolly hats in red and white. Some temples have a dedicated graveyard with family gravestones, many in the traditional gorinto (five ringed tower) form. You may also spot an enormous bell, rung to mark the New Year and other occasions. Outer and inner gates to the temple are usually guarded by an array of fierce animals, warriors or gods who ward off evil spirits. Some Buddhist temples also have torii, but these are usually smaller and less prevalent than in Shinto shrines. Visitors pray by making monetary offerings (thrown into a saisen-bako box), lighting incense and candles and leaving food and drink offerings. Like Shinto shrines, ema and o-mikuji are often on sale for leaving messages and discerning one’s fortune.

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During my two trips to Kyoto, I have amassed a beautiful collection of ema from many different temples and shrines. The pale wood, red and white cords and colourful images (also featuring lots of red) make unusual and memory-laden tree ornaments, and look lovely shown off against the green branches of a traditional tree or hung onto a more modern metal spiral one.  I’m delighted at how well they have helped me bring a little Kyoto magic into my home this winter.

 

This piece was written for Good Things Magazine, a new food, travel and lifestyle magazine launching to consumers in Spring 2014. Content will be available via the website soon, or follow @GoodThingsUK for the latest news.

Dec 182013
 

My sister and I were definitely Blue Peter girls.

We loved making the many craft projects shown on the programme. I remember spending weeks making a cardboard dolls house with lots of furniture inside: instructions for additional items taught across a series of episodes; one week a chest of drawers made from matchboxes with split pins for handles; another week a table lamb using the fancy lid from a common brand of shampoo or bubble bath bottle. We made 3D greeting cards, witches’ hats and face masks from empty cereal boxes. There was a large castle made from a cardboard box, with toilet-roll holder turrets.  And I can no longer recall whether it was an empty jam jar or washing up liquid bottle inside the cotton wool-covered snowman. Oh and I thought my home-made personal organiser was the epitome of sophistication! There were hundreds more I’ve forgotten, of course, as we were pretty prolific. We improvised, of course – to this day I don’t think I’ve ever even seen sticky backed plastic and how many times was there an empty box or bottle just when you needed one?

We also loved to make a mess in the kitchen. We did enjoy proper cooking but it was also fun to make simple things we could do on our own like peppermint creams, coconut ice and marzipan fruits. Making marzipan fruits kept us occupied for hours, so I suspect it was a favourite with our parents too!

As well as a block or two of shop-bought marzipan we assembled our tools – various items of cutlery to make indents and marks of different shapes, such as teaspoons, toothpicks, tiny crab forks and a large grater to help pattern citrus peel; food colouring and some water to dilute it as needed and water colour paintbrushes with which we carefully blushed red over green for apples and orange over yellow for apricots. We usually kneaded the base food colouring into the actual marzipan and then painted the secondary colours over the top. We used cloves as stalks, stuck in one way for citrus fruits and the other for apples and pears. Leaves were too complicated so we either skipped them or used real ones from the garden.

Oddly, I have no memories of eating our finished creations – just of sitting in the kitchen sculpting away!

 

When I spotted some large marzipan fruits in Carluccio’s Christmas range, they bought those childhood memories straight back. For comparison purposes, I also picked up boxes from Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. I had hoped to include Niederegger marzipan fruits, as I love the quality of their marzipan, but discovered that these are no longer available. I was not able to pick up products from other supermarkets.

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Carluccio’s hand painted Sicilian Frutta di Marzapane (£16.95 for 400 grams) were certainly visually impressive and would be the prettiest of the three sets if you want to make a table display, although I wasn’t convinced by the plastic stalks and greenery. The fruits were very large – especially the tomato, lemon, fig and orange – which would also make them harder to share and hard to eat a whole one at once. Sadly, I was disappointed by the taste and dry mealy texture of the marzipan itself.

WaitroseMarzipanFruits-4220 WaitroseMarzipanFruits-4222

Waitrose marzipan fruits (£4.99 for 170 grams) were a much better match for the ones my sister and I used to make and less heavily coloured too. All the fruits were about the same size, just right for enjoying in one or two bites. But I was disappointed by the flat bottoms – the fruits were shaped only on the top, rather than all the way around. On the plus side, the taste and texture of the marzipan was, surprisingly, far better than Carluccio’s.

SainsburysMarzipanFruits-4322 SainsburysMarzipanFruits-4325

At just £3 (for 150 grams), Sainsbury’s marzipan fruits were the most keenly priced. Like the Waitrose box, each fruit was evenly sized and this time they were shaped all the way around. That said, the moulding was poorly aligned and the colouring and detail far less attractive than the others. The texture was pleasantly soft and smooth, but the flavour wasn’t as good as the Waitrose ones.

 

My pick of the three are the Waitrose marzipan fruits which provide the best combination of good looks, great taste and a reasonable price.

 

Kavey Eats received a sample box from Carluccio’s and purchased the other two samples directly from local supermarkets.

 

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What better way to introduce you to Cocoa Runners than to ask co-founder Spencer Hyman and “Chief Chocolate Officer” Dom Ramsey a few questions from Kavey Eats.

Can you give us a brief synopsis of what Cocoa Runners is all about?

Spencer: Cocoa Runners is trying to bring our customers the world’s best bean to bar chocolates.  We do this via a monthly delivery service where we send our customers four bars picked around a theme, in a specially designed box that fits through your letter box. Every box also contains detailed tasting notes for each bar alongside introductions to their makers and growers.  And our online Chocolate Library gives our customers access to more bars and more information

What gave you the idea for Cocoa Runners and how did you develop and fine tune it?

Spencer: We all love chocolate, and we were all frustrated by how hard it was to find great chocolate.  Almost every corner store and supermarket sells chocolate.  But much of the chocolate they sell is confectionery and there is no guidance or easy way to find great bars.  So we thought about how the likes of Hugh Johnson and Tony Laithwaite made wine accessible and available – and now we are trying to use the web and mobile to do the same for fine chocolate.  We’ve a team that has been doing ecommerce since the beginning and we very much believe that online gives you great opportunities to access and learn about what your customers want.  For example, pretty much from the outset we’ve heard from our customers that they wanted a “dark only” option – so we’ve developed this.  Similarly many of our customers want to gift a subscription – so we are now rolling out this functionality

I think Cocoa Runners has come at just the right time, as more and more Brits are discovering the joys of good chocolate but so many are new to it and keen to learn more. How did you decide it was the right time to launch and what were the key challenges you faced in bringing Cocoa Runners to fruition?

Spencer: Thanks! We think it’s the right time too.  We’ve wanted to do this for ages.  And we do think that now is a great time for great chocolate – not least as we’re seeing more and more artisan manufacturers launching “bean to bar”. The UK has been blessed with Willie and Duffy, who’ve been around now for quite a few years.  And now almost every week there are new makers – for example in the UK there’s Pablo (Forever Cacao), Chris (Pump Street Bakery) and Ali (The Chocolate Tree).  The US is also exploding – makers such as Mast, Frution, TCHO, Taza and Dandelion pioneered the way and last year over 50 new “bean to bar” manufacturers launched.  And outside of this, bean to bar is taking off in cocoa growing regions – from South America and Madagascar  to Vietnam and Hawaii.  So we can really spoil our customers with a choice of makers from Brooklyn to Budapest, Saigon to San Francisco and Copenhagen to Cleethorpes.

You’ve sampled hundreds of bars to choose the ones to include in the Cocoa Runners boxes. Can you tell us a little about how you narrowed down the selection and what criteria you considered when picking the perfect bars?

Dom: Before we even taste a chocolate, the first thing we look at is provenance. We think it’s important that chocolate is traceable, sustainable and that it’s doing good for the cocoa farmer, and if we don’t think it lives up to those standards, we won’t consider it.

When it comes to taste, sometimes it’s a clear “yes” or “no”. When you’re dealing with small-batch craft chocolate, the passion and attention to detail of the maker often comes through in the flavour. More often than not though, we’ll still pick specific stand-out bars from a range rather than take everything.

I think it also helps that there are two of us doing the tasting. I taste most of the chocolate with Jennifer Earle, and although we’ve both been tasting chocolate for many years, we have different personal tastes. That helps us see past personal preferences and just choose the best chocolate.

Talk us through your chocolate profiling system and how you are using this to make recommendations that help customers find chocolate they love.

Dom: When developing Cocoa Runners, we looked at many different systems for profiling the flavour of chocolate, from flavour wheels to graphs. They were mostly difficult to decipher or just not very useful. We wanted a really simple system that would both help us classify the bars as we taste them, and let our members see what to expect at a glance.

What we came up with was a simple list of the most common attributes we find in chocolate. The list encompasses texture (smooth, coarse, etc.) and the natural flavour notes found within chocolate (fruity, spicy, earthy, etc.). We mark out each attribute that applies to the bar we’re tasting (so you can, for example, search for all ‘fruity & spicy dark chocolates from Peru’), then pick out three attributes for every bar that describe it at a glance.

Our tasting cards and website have icons these attributes, so you can see at a glance what to expect. This also means that we can build personal recommendations based on the types of chocolate you’ve liked in the past. Like a dating site, we find the attributes you’ve enjoyed the most and can recommend other bars that share those attributes.

What is it about chocolate that makes it so popular?

Dom: I think the first thing that makes chocolate popular is the taste.  It’s wonderful, comforting, and a little indulgent. But with the kind of chocolate we have eaten in the past in this country, there’s also a level of guilt attached.  We want to change that part!

We really want to spread the message that great chocolate is good for you  and makes a tangible difference to the lives of cocoa farmers in some of the poorest parts of the world.  All of the chocolate makers we feature have fascinating, uplifting stories  themselves, and we think sharing those stories is a vital part of what we do. These people are passionate about flavour, sustainability and the environment.

It’s such an exciting world to be involved with, and we just want to share that excitement with as many people as we can.

So what did I think of my box?

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I like the packaging on two levels. Firstly, it’s designed to fit through the letterbox and protect my chocolates in transit. Both of those it does very well. Secondly, it looks good – I think the logo is really attractive and I love the old-style map printed on the inside of the box lid (see below).

Of course, the name of the business is great too; a clever play on words suggesting that chocolate is the recreational drug of choice and these guys will break all the rules to get the very best of it to my front door. It’s bold and a little risqué without actually using any naughty words at all and it makes me smile.

CocoaRunners-5957 CocoaRunners-5958

The tasting attribute icons are very helpful. Really easy to identify, they categorise each bar according to chocolate type, added flavourings, texture, flavour strength and flavour notes. Each bar comes with a card featuring the three key attributes for that chocolate plus more detailed tasting notes on the other side. As Dom has explained, this makes it easier to identify your preferences and find other bars with similar profiles. My only issue here is that each chocolate is summarised with just three icons, and given that one is always chocolate type, that only leaves two icons to cover the other four categories. Still, it’s a simple system and I can see it being really useful to customers. Oh and the graphic design on the icons is beautiful too.

The chocolate itself is absolutely superb. This much I expected, as the team includes some very knowledgeable experts who are passionate about great chocolate. I’ve already been introduced to some marvellous chocolate via these same experts over the years, so I knew they’d choose only the best to go into these boxes.

Each box has a theme. The first three boxes in any subscription will be Origins (which includes chocolate from some of Cocoa Runners’ favourite cocoa growing destinations), Texture & Flavour (which, as the name suggests, explores some of the wide range of both that you can find in chocolate) and Intensity (which, likewise, does what it says on the “tin”). After that, you’ll be sent boxes according to the theme Cocoa Runners have put together for that month.

The introductory offer is £16.95 per box (dropping to £14.95 if paid quarterly rather than monthly) and each box will contain 4 bars. That price includes UK delivery; they can also ship to the EU for an additional £2.50. You can specify in your profile that you wish to receive dark chocolate only, but as the FAQ points out, “there are some fantastic milk chocolates that most people have never tried. Some of them are even 70% cocoa.” Certainly the Menakao Madagascan Vanilla 44% milk chocolate in my box is delicious and something I think even those who usually eschew milk chocolate may enjoy. Cocoa Runners also offers subscribers the option of purchasing additional bars (either of chocolate they’ve received in their boxes and loved or of any other bars in the extensive chocolate library). Postage for these orders is £2.50, free on orders over £20.

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Earlier this year, one of the client projects I worked on meant long video conference meetings with colleagues in the US every week. The meetings were long and (let’s be frank) a little boring so I took to bringing in chocolate samples I’d been sent to review, to add a little joy to proceedings. I was delighted to bring at least a couple of my colleagues around to the idea of taking origin and flavour profiles of chocolate into consideration and giving higher quality chocolate a chance over the cheap, sugary brands they were more familiar with.

Cocoa Runners aim to do this on a far larger scale and with even more exciting chocolate sourced from all around the world.

I think it’s an absolutely excellent idea and it is just as good in execution. Colour me impressed.

DISCOUNT CODE

I am delighted to invite readers to enjoy £3 off their first month’s subscription to Cocoa Runners by using discount code “kaveyeats”. This code is valid until 31 January 2014.

 

Kavey Eats was sent a review box by Cocoa Runners.
I believe in open and honest disclosure; please note that I am friends with several of the Cocoa Runners team. As always, I have shared my honest opinion of the product.

 

I have always had a sweet-tooth. I’m overly sensitive to sour and bitter flavour profiles, so much so that I find regular wines make my jaw muscles clench in reaction to the taste – to me even those usually described as medium taste far too much like vinegar. It’s also the reason I struggle with beers, especially given the current trend for bitter hop monsters.

So I usually opt for sweeter choices such as dessert wines, sweet sherries and ports. I have a soft spot for liqueurs too, though I’ve not included any in this list. Next time!

Here are my sweet choices for Christmas 2013.

 

Peller Estate Cabernet Franc Icewine (375 ml)

icewine1

When I tried this beautiful dusky pink icewine at a Morrisons’ press event, I was amazed to be told that no, it didn’t have any strawberries in it, so clearly did that fruit flavour sing out to me. Raspberries, rhubarb and pomegranate come through too. In fact, this dessert wine is made wholly from Canadian Cabernet Franc grapes, picked when naturally frozen by winter temperatures of around minus 10 C and immediately pressed.

ABV 11.5% – £45 from Morrisons

 

Harveys Pedro Ximenez VORS (50 cl)

harveyspx

I adore PX; an intensely rich,  gloriously sticky, syrupy-sweet sherry with its flavours of figs, prunes and raisins is utterly redolent of Christmas. Made in Jerez, in the heart of Cadiz province in Andalusia, this is a drink I enjoy all year round. I have tried many brands over the years and this is one I go back to again and again. Harveys’ VORS tag tells us this PX has been aged using the traditional solera process for at least 30 years. A shot over good quality vanilla ice cream makes a simple but decadent dessert.

ABV 16% – £21.00 from Waitrose Direct

 

Neige Core de Glace Premiere Ice Cider (375 ml)

icecider

Listed as ice wine on the Harvey Nichols website, this is more accurately an iced cider – apples are picked and pressed in a frozen condition, using the same techniques applied to grapes to make ice wine. Produced by François Pouliot in his Québec cidery La Face Cachée de la Pomme (The Hidden Face of the Apple), it is described as crisp and sweet and, of course, full of apple fruit flavours. I think it would be a delicious alternative to the usual grape offerings.

ABV 11% – £28.50 from Harvey Nichols

 

Yalumba Museum Reserve Muscat (375 ml)

yalumba

The muscat grape is not only fabulous to eat, it also produces a wonderfully perfumed wine. This golden Australian muscat is made from partially raisined grapes, and fortified with neutral grape spirit, to preserve the floral and citrus notes inherent in the grape. Beautifully sweet, it’s a classic dessert wine.

ABV 18% – £11.99 from Morrisons

 

Kourtaki Mavrodaphne of Patras (75 cl)

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I was first given a bottle several years ago by a friend who was intrigued by the idea of a properly dark red dessert wine, and one made in Greece at that. I’ve bought it again a number of times since, appreciative of its full-bodied black berries and dried fruits richness. The mavrodaphne is a black grape variety indigenous to the Achaea region of Greece (the capital of which is Patras). The wine is vinified in large vats exposed to the sun; once matured, distillate prepared from previous vintages is added, and then the wine is transferred to underground cellars for maturation; there, the solera method of adding older vintages to new ones is used to create a balanced blend.

ABV 15% – Priced from £5 to £6.50 a bottle, available from major supermarkets including Tesco and Morrisons.

 

Quady Winery Elysium Black Muscat (375 ml)

ElysiumBlack

Another muscat, produced by Quady Winery in the United States, Elysium Black is, as the name suggests, made from black grapes. I first came across it on a restaurant wine list a few years ago and have enjoyed it a few times since then. Rich and sweet, with a very floral flavour.

ABV 15% – £12.50 from Fortnum & Mason or £12.49 from Majestic Wine (available vintages may vary)

 

Royal Tokaji Aszu Gold Label 2006 (50 cl)

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Tokaji is wine made in the Tokaj wine region of Hungary; Tokaji Aszu is the region’s well known dessert wine. It is produced by harvesting grapes after they’ve been shrivelled by botrytis (noble rot), which concentrates their natural sugar content. Categorised according to sweetness (on a scale of 3 to 6 puttonyos), I’ve particularly enjoyed the sweeter Tokaji Aszu wines I have tried. I’d dearly love to try a Tokaji Aszu Essencia, an even sweeter variant with an unusually high residual sugar count, but am yet to come across this at an affordable price. I’ve not tried this specific 6 puttonyos Aszu from Majestic, but I have loved others by the same brand, The Royal Tokaji Wine Company.

ABV 9% – £28 from Majestic Wine

 

Rubis Chocolate Wine (50 cl)

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I came across this chocolate-flavoured fortified wine at a food festival or show. A nice balance between chocolate and the fruity tempranillo grape, it’s best served chilled. My only criticism of this product is the lack of information about which chocolate is used and how it’s sourced.

ABV 15% – £14.38 (incl. delivery) from Amazon UK

 

Maynard’s 30 Year Old Tawny Port (75 cl)

Aldiport

Tawny Ports are aged in wooden casks rather than in large tanks or bottles, like their Ruby counterparts. The wood gives them a lighter body and colour, and a wonderful smoothness on the palate. I love the nutty sweetness, with far less tannin than other styles of port. Most commonly served at room temperature, I think tawny ports are also lovely chilled. Although I’ve not tried this 30 year old, the Maynard’s 10 year old that Aldi sold last winter was well reviewed.

ABV 20% – £29.99 from Aldi

 

Castelnau de Suduiraut 2009 Sauternes (375 ml)

sauternes

I adore Sauternes, with it’s intense floral and citrus honeyed notes and straw honey colour. I’ve tried Château Suduiraut a few times; it’s a much more affordable premier cru classé than it’s neighbour Château d’Yquem. Another to look out for is Château Rieussec, usually a touch more expensive.

ABV 14% – £11.99 from Majestic Wine

 

Please note that this post includes an Amazon affiliate link. The price you pay doesn’t change but I receive a tiny referral commission for items you buy after following such links.

 

This fabulous Christmas cracker from Hotel Chocolat contains 40 delicious chocolates, 12 party hats and even the obligatory cracker jokes. Sixty-four centimetres long, it’s definitely aptly named as Rather Large.

HC-ratherlargechristmascracker

This year’s Christmas range offers two key design themes; the first features glamorously dressed men and women, partying beneath elegant chandeliers; the second is a colourful and bold geometric design based on the little drummer boy. As always, there are advent calendars, a variety of selection boxes, solid chocolate wreaths and slabs, chocolate-coated fruits and nuts, moulded chocolate lollipops, chocolate logs and drinking chocolate.

COMPETITION

Hotel Chocolat has kindly offered a Rather Large Christmas Cracker, priced at £40, to one lucky Kavey Eats reader. The prize includes free delivery within the UK.

HOW TO ENTER

You can enter the competition in 3 ways:

Entry 1 – Blog Comment
Leave a comment below, telling me which chocolate(s) you hope to see in your Christmas stocking.

Entry 2 – Facebook
Like the Kavey Eats Facebook page and leave a (separate) comment on this blog post with your Facebook user name.

Entry 3 – Twitter
Follow @Kavey on Twitter. Existing followers are, of course, welcome to enter! Then tweet the (exact) sentence below.
I’d love to win a rather large @HotelChocolat cracker from Kavey Eats! http://goo.gl/m4nz2h #KaveyEatsHotelChocolat
(Please do not add my twitter handle into the tweet; I track entries using the competition hash tag. And you don’t need to leave a blog comment about your tweet either, thanks!)

RULES & DETAILS

  • The deadline for entries is midnight GMT Friday 13th December 2013.
  • Kavey Eats reserves the right to alter the closing date of the competition. Changes to the closing date, if they occur, will be shown on this page.
  • The winner will be selected from all valid entries using a random number generator.
  • Entry instructions form part of the terms and conditions.
  • Where prizes are to be provided by a third party, Kavey Eats accepts no responsibility for the acts or defaults of that third party.
  • The prize is a Hotel Chocolat Rather Large Christms Cracker, as shown above, with free delivery within the UK.
  • Please note that while we will do our best, we cannot guarantee delivery for 25th December 2013.
  • The prize cannot be redeemed for a cash value.
  • The prize is offered and provided by Hotel Chocolat.
  • One blog entry per person only. One Twitter entry per person only. One Facebook entry per person only. You do not have to enter all three ways for your entries to be valid.
  • For Twitter entries, winners must be following @Kavey at the time of notification. For Facebook entries, winners must Like the Kavey Eats Facebook page at time of notification.
  • Blog comment entries must provide a valid email address for contacting the winner.
  • The winners will be notified by email, Twitter or Facebook. If no response is received within 7 days of notification, the prize will be forfeit and a new winner will be picked and contacted.

Kavey Eats attended a Christmas preview evening hosted by Hotel Chocolat, during which we were also given a bag of review samples.

The winner of this competition was Lynne @Josordoni.

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