Green smoothies are all the rage.

But I’ve just not developed a taste for kale, spinach, broccoli or any other green vegetable in my smoothies and prefer to stick to my fruit concoctions.

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A banana is a great start to the day. In recent years, bananas have received some bad press because they do not score as low on the Glycaemic Index (GI) as many other fruits and vegetables. But, as this really excellent guide explains, there are weaknesses in using the GI to assess food – you have to eat a lot more of some foods to hit the 50 grams of digestible carbs on which the score is calculated than you do for others – although bananas have a GI score of around 50 (depending on ripeness) you’d need to eat 3 bananas to hit that 50 grams of digestible carbs. It’s also worth remembering that the GI doesn’t take into account the nutritional benefits (or lack of them) of different types of food – crisps are only a touch higher than bananas in terms of their GI score! A banana for breakfast not only keeps me feeling full for quite a few hours, it is also a good source of fibre, potassium, magnesium and vitamins C and B6.

Recently I’ve been drinking even more matcha than usual, after writing an article all about it for a recent issue of Good Things magazine. Although the method of grinding tea leaves into a powder originated in China, it was not until the practice reached Japan by way of Zen Buddhist monks that it developed into the drink we know today. Matcha is traditionally made by stone grinding green leaves of shade-grown tea (gyokuro). Before grinding the leaves are dried, de-veined and de-stemmed, in this state they are known as tencha. Growing tea in shade slows down the growth, stimulating an increase in chlorophyll levels. This turns the leaves a darker shade of green and causes the production of amino acids, in particular L-Theanine, which provides a distinctive umami flavour. L-Theanine is also claimed to reduce stress, sharpen cognitive performance and improve mood, especially when combined with caffeine, as it is in matcha.

Prunes – dried plums – have long been used as a mild natural laxative, although there’s no real evidence that they’re any more effective than other fruits and vegetables that are good sources of dietary fibre, bananas included. But I love their rich flavour, and they’re a great natural sweetener.

Of course, the dark colour of prunes turns what would otherwise be a brighter green smoothie into a less visually attractive brown one, so feel to substitute with dried dates or apricots, or a generous squirt of honey or maple syrup, each of which will create a quite different flavour profile for your 3 ingredient smoothie.

3 Ingredient Breakfast Smoothie | Banana, Prune & Matcha

Ingredients
1 large banana, peeled – about 125 grams peeled weight
2-3 teaspoons matcha (Japanese green tea powder)
60 grams pitted dried prunes*
1 cup of water, or more for a thinner smoothie

* substitute with dried dates, dried apricots, honey or maple syrup if preferred.

Method

  • Place all ingredients into a blender and blitz until smooth.
  • Pour into a glass and drink straight away.

Tip: My Froothie Optimum power blender makes quick work of even the toughest dried fruits, but if yours is not as effective, soak the dried fruits in water for 30 minutes before blending – you can use the soaking water in the smoothie too.

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For more fruit smoothie inspiration check out:

 

In the last few years I’ve discovered that I have a taste for sake. I’ve learned the basics about how it’s made and the different types available, but haven’t sampled enough to get a handle on my preferences. There’s a very distinctive taste that most sakes have in common, despite their many differences and it’s a taste I like very much. But having one or two sakes in isolation once every few months serves only to let me choose my favourite between the two – such tastings are too few and far between for me to build up a coherent library of taste memories in my head, and thereby gain more confidence on choosing well in the future. One of the outstanding items on my Food & Drink To Do list is to immerse myself more fully in the world of sake and work out which styles, regions and even producers I love the most.

The Chisou restaurant group have been running a Sake Club for about a year now, a regular evening of tutored tastings with matched Japanese snacks provided. I’ve been meaning to attend since they launched, but have singularly failed.

What finally spurred me to action was actually a deviation from the norm – a special umeshu tasting.

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The tastings are held in a private room – in Chisou Knightsbridge this was the upstairs dining room – properly separated from regular diners. We shared a table with a couple who were also first timers to the Sake Club, Gareth and Nirvana, and had a lot of fun talking about food and drink, life in London and visiting Japan.

Chisou’s Marketing Manager Mark McCafferty hosted the evening and started by giving us an introduction to umeshu, though a printed crib sheet was also provided for each guest. He introduced each of the six drinks, and the snacks that were served with them, sharing tasting tips and notes throughout.

Although umeshu is usually described in English as plum wine, the ume fruit is not actually a plum; although nicknames include both Chinese Plum and Japanese Apricot, it’s a distinct species within the Prunus genus (which also includes plums and apricots); if a comparison is still needed, the ume is a stone fruit that is closer to the apricot than to the plum.

Why did Chisou decide to hold an umeshu night as part of their Sake Club series? Because umeshu is traditionally made using surplus sake or shōchū – a distilled spirit made from a variety of different carbohydrates – or to use up batches which have not turned out quite as planned. That said, as it’s popularity has increased, many breweries make umeshu as part of their standard product range, and some use high grade sake or shōchū and top quality ume fruit to do so.

The method is very straightforward and will be familiar to those who’ve made sloe gin or other fruit-based spirits – strawberry vodka, anyone? Whole ume fruit are steeped in alcohol – the longer the period, the more the fruit breaks down and its flavour leaches into the alcohol. Some umeshu is left to mature for years, allowing the almond-flavour of the stone to become more pronounced.

In many cases, additional sugar is added to the umeshu, to create a sweeter liqueur. Many households make their own umeshu when the ume fruit is in season, as it’s a very simple drink to make.

The whole fruits are often left in the umeshu – both in home made and commercial versions – and served alongside the drink. Take care, as the stone is still inside!

The welcome drink, as everyone settled in and we waited for a few late arrivals, was a Kir-style cocktail of prosecco and Hannari Kyo umeshu. With this we enjoyed orange-salted edamame beans and wasabi peas.

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Next, an Ozeki umeshu on the rocks served with a generous plate of pork scratchings with individual bowls of an umami-explosion shiitake mayonnaise. In Japan, the highest quality of fruit is often very expensive, and Mark explained that this particular brewery use top quality ume for their umeshu. For Pete, this was “reminiscent of a sherry” and Nirvana liked the “aftertaste of almond”. I loved this umeshu, one of my favourites of the evening.

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Third was a cloudy version – Morikawa umeshumade with a ginjo sake (using highly polished rice), so quite unusual. For me, this tasted stronger than the previous one, but in fact it was a slightly lower ABV – I think this may simply have been because more bitterness was evident in the taste. Mark suggested we should “warm it up like a mulled wine, to make the most of it’s spiciness”. Gareth particularly enjoyed the “mouthfeel” of this umeshu. Pete thought it would an amazing match with a cheese – a perfect replacement for port.

With this came a small skewer of smoked duck with apple cider, miso and fresh ginger, served theatrically beneath a smoke-filled dome. I could have eaten an entire plate of these, instead of just one!

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I was surprised how much I liked the fourth option, as I couldn’t imagine the combination on first reading the menu. The Tomio Uji Gyokuro umeshu combines traditional shade-grown green tea with umeshu to add a rich umami note to the finished product. Oxidisation means the drink is amber rather than green, but the meaty and medicinal notes are evidence of the presence of green tea.

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Next was a cocktail combining Hannari Kyo umeshu with Yamagata Masamune sake, lime juice and angostura bitters. I found this a too bitter and dry for my tastes, so asked if I could taste the Hannari Kyo umeshu on its own, as we’d only tried it with mixers thus far. It’s a lovely umeshu but couldn’t compete with the Ozeki umeshu or the Tomio Uji Gyokuro umeshu for me.

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Last, we were served a cup of good quality vanilla ice cream with warm Morikawa umeshu to pour over the top, affogato-style. As you’d imagine, the sweet and sour notes of the fruit liqueur really work well with cold vanilla ice cream, making it what Nirvana called “a very grown up ice cream”. As Mark commented, “warm it up and it really comes alive”.

Pete and I decided to stay on and order a few dishes from the food menu to soak up the alcohol before heading home, umeshu-happy.

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agedashi tofu, gyoza, pork with kimchi, chicken karaage

After such a great evening, we are keen to attend more Sake Club events. Umeshu night was very well priced at £40 per person and was a great learning experience, a fun social evening and very delicious. If you book Sake Club, do take care that you go the right location. The club is alternately held at different branches of the restaurant and it’s not uncommon for regulars to go to the wrong one, resulting in a mad dash across town.

Kavey Eats attended the Umeshu tasting as guests of Chisou Knightsbridge. The additional dishes pictured at the end were on our own tab.

 

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a Matcha Masterclass by Jameel Lalani, founder of Lalani & Co.

Not long before, I wrote an article about matcha for which I spoke to several retailers of high grade Matcha, Lalani & Co included. (Look out for the article in the March issue of Good Things magazine). During those conversations, Jameel recommended his recipe for a matcha and fruit smoothie, which sounded rather delicious. I was later invited to the masterclass to taste his tempting smoothie recipe and to learn how to make a matcha latte.

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Hosted by Curators Coffee near Oxford Circus, the evening class lasted one and a half hours, during which time Jameel not only introduced the class to matcha – what it is, how it’s made, how one assesses quality, how best to use high grade and regular matcha powders – but also took us through how to make matcha (both usucha thin and koicha thick style), matcha latte (with lessons on latte art from a member of the Curators Coffee team) and a matcha breakfast smoothie. Each of us made our own matcha and matcha latte, the smoothie was made in one batch, while we crowded around the blender.

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Little sweet treats were provided by Curators Coffee, very much in the matcha tradition; matcha is usually served with wagashi – Japanese confectionary. It was a lovely evening, and everyone really enjoyed it, none more so than the giggling gang of students celebrating a birthday and the latte addict who’d attended another class with Curators just the evening before.

This is an ideal class for anyone looking to learn a little more about matcha and, more specifically, how to drink it. Book via Curators Coffee. The class is priced at £40 per person, and includes a jar of Lalani & Co Matcha Gold to take home; this is a top grade stone milled Matcha that retails for £29.

Kavey Eats attended a Matcha masterclass as a guest of Lalani & Co.

 

Tombo, Japanese for dragonfly, is a small deli and cafe in South Kensington, just a minute’s walk from the tube station. It offers a small menu of modern Japanese food and quality tea. I’m a particular fan of it’s Japanese desserts, which often feature ingredients such as azuki (red bean paste), matcha and sesame.

On my latest visit, I tried the Tombo Afternoon Tea; served from 3 to 5pm, this is a lovely variation on traditional sandwiches, scones and cakes.

The standard afternoon tea (£12.90 per person) includes your choice from Tombo’s selection of teas, or for £19.90 you can upgrade to sparkling sake instead. I went for genmaicha which Tombo unusually combine with matcha. My friend chose peppermint tea, as she was looking for a non-caffeinated option. The teas were excellent and hot water is provided for top ups, automatically – a nice touch.

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For the savoury course, we enjoyed temari sushi (salmon and prawn) and maki sushi rolls (salmon and french beans). Having checked it was possibly before our visit, my friend requested that all seafood items were switched for vegetarian/ chicken ones, she is currently on a restricted diet. I would ask Tombo to take more care with requests such as this – one of the sushi rolls served on the non-seafood plate contained salmon. That aside, in terms of quality and flavour, the sushi was very enjoyable.

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On the lower layer of the slate food stands came a selection of desserts. On my visit these included azuki doriyaki (filled pancake), matcha cream doriyaki, matcha gateau, azuki gateau, a pink macaron and a chocolate. My friend wasn’t as keen on the azuki doriyaki or matcha gateau – she preferred the other desserts in the selection. My favourites were the matcha gateau and the macaron.

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Both of us really enjoyed Tombo’s afternoon tea – the sushi alternative to sandwiches is a really novel and welcome approach and the price very reasonable for the quality of food and drink.

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Press images courtesy of Tombo Deli & Cafe

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Tombo Deli & Cafe. Thanks also for the two additional images of cafe exterior and afternoon tea stand.

 

Have you heard of supertasters? To my eternal regret, I have, because I’m one of them.

The label makes being a supertaster sound exciting, suggestive of a superior palate. The truth of the matter is that a supertaster is simply someone who “experiences the sense of taste with far greater intensity than average”. Yes, that does mean a supertaster can detect hints of flavours that others may miss. A key identifier is an increased sensitivity to bitter flavours in particular; it’s usual for supertasters to dislike bitter foods and drinks.

A Guardian article about supertasters last year shares a wonderful quote from John Hayes, professor of food science at Penn State University, who says of supertasterdom, “It’s not a superpower, you don’t get a cape and it doesn’t make you better than other people.”

I first came across the term several years ago, and immediately wondered if I might be a supertaster; I’ve always had a very strong aversion to virtually every food and drink commonly listed as items that a supertaster dislikes – grapefruit, carbonated water, several of the brassica family, many alcoholic beverages such as hoppy beer and dry wine. When we were little, my younger sister occasionally amused herself by merrily sucking on wedges of lemon; it made me wince just to watch!

The increased sensitivity to other tastes and textures (sweet, salty, umami, fatty) is less problematic. While I am known to have a sweet tooth, for me it’s very much about flavour – too much sugar blows out the other tastes, so I prefer fruity dark chocolate to cheap sugary milk chocolate, for example. I generally love creamy, fatty textures and the flavours that come with them. I like salty things but it’s all about balance; although salt is known to boost flavour it helps counter bitterness as well so I like it well enough but too much of it overwhelms the rest of the dish. Some chefs add so much salt to their food I wonder if they can taste it at all.

Embarrassingly for an Indian, I cannot tolerate heavy-handed use of hot chilli – it makes my tongue burn so much I can’t taste anything else at all. And the pain isn’t pleasant either. Chilli sensitivity is a pain in the arse, but I manage to cope with a low to medium level so I’m not totally limited to baby food!

Incidentally, children are usually supertasters and share an aversion to bitterness that most grow out of, so when they tell you they don’t like Brussels sprouts, they may not be lying!

Coffee is commonly cited as an ingredient that we supertasters tend to avoid and yet I drink gallons of it. But I always choose the least bitter instant coffee available; very, very light roasts with fruity rather than bitter notes, and always  drink coffee with plenty of milk or cream and a frankly ridiculous amount of sugar (or dulce de leche in place of both). Coffee ice cream is one of my favourite things. Strong, dark, bitter coffee – as enjoyed by coffee aficionados – is a complete no-no for me; it’s far, far, far too bitter.

You might be wondering what causes this supertaster condition?

Current theory holds that the presence of a gene called TAS238 is involved, which seems to govern the ability to detect bitterness (usually tested via reactions to propylthiouracil) plus a higher than usual density of fungiform papillae taste buds on the tongue. Being a supertaster to some extent is not that uncommon – I’ve seen articles suggesting it’s as high as one in four. But the level of sensitivity varies and many supertasters are only mildly so.

It’s thought that this gene could be an evolutionary remnant; since many toxins are bitter, a natural aversion to bitterness would have steered our ancestors away from potentially unsafe foods.

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Back in early December, Pete and I were invited to a food and beer matching event by Leffe. I don’t usually enjoy beer (the bitterness from the hops being the problem) but I have found the occasional lightly-hopped fruit beer palatable. Pete, of course, loves his beers.

To make the evening more of an experience, Leffe invited along The Robin Collective, a company that runs lively events for brands interested in exploring taste in a fun and light-hearted way.

As we sat down around the table, they handed out some tiny plastic bags of mysterious white powder, a pink pill and a tiny square of white paper. There were a few raised eyebrows!

With no idea what it was, we were asked to place the little square of white paper onto our tongues. Immediately, I grimaced with disgust at the intensely bitter taste flooding my mouth and asked if I could please spit it out. To my surprise, nearly everyone else looked at me in surprised disbelief, stating that the square tasted of absolutely nothing, or for a couple of them, very mildy bitter at most.

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At this point, The Robin Collective revealed that the paper was a supertaster test (soaked in phenylthiocarbamide, which functions similarly to propylthiouracil). I was clearly towards the stronger end of the scale. The blue dye they asked us put onto our tongues next (commonly used to aid the visual identification and counting of taste buds) was a bust – the room was simply too dark to see, let alone count taste buds. It just looked as though we’d all eaten blue slushies! The white powder  was sodium benzoate, another molecule which supertasters are more sensitive to, and can detect more flavours from.

After this, we moved on to our meal, matching courses with different Leffe beers, including Leffe’s new-to-UK Ruby, a pretty rosé beer featuring red fruits of the forest along with their blonde, brown and nectar (honey) beers.

At the end of the meal, The Robin Collective also had us experiment with miracle berry, a fruit which naturally interferes with taste receptors such that your perception of sour ingredients is that they are sweet. We chewed on the pink pills before proving the effect by sucking on a plate of lemon wedges, which tasted wonderfully sweet.

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The beers were introduced by the very knowledgeable, charmingly enthusiastic and excitable Luke Morris, who has worked with many beer brands including Leffe. He told us about each beer, discussed the best food matches and guided us through our tasting.

As expected, different beers worked better or worse with different dishes.

Sometimes it’s a case of echoing the dominant flavour profiles in the dish with flavours also in the beer. Sometimes it’s better to contrast the beer and food. Either way, a great match can really make the food on the plate sing and likewise certain foods do a super job of bringing out different aspects of the beer.

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Of the four beers we tried during the evening, my favourite was the fruity ruby – drinking it with the food helped to lessen the light bitterness and bring out the fruity flavours. Pete was keener on the brown beer, with the blonde in second place. For him the sweetness of the nectar and ruby beers was less appealing.

Kavey Eats attended this beer and food matching event as guests of Leffe.

 

Regular readers will know that I’m married to a beer enthusiast. Pete loves to drink beer, to talk about beer and to brew beer. He even grows his own hops! Although supermarkets are getting a little better at stocking a wider range of interesting beers, Pete often buys his beer online, from the growing number of beer specialists that offer a far better choice.

We recently came across Beer52, an online beer retailer founded last year by James Brown after his epic motorcycle craft beer road trip round Europe. His discovery that there were more than 12,000 microbreweries in the world inspired him to create a business in which his team handpick eight different beers to share with subscribers each month; the selection is delivered to your door for £24 a box. Beer52 are often able to source exclusive, small batch beers from small and experimental breweries around the world – not the kind of beers a supermarket is ever likely to stock.

Pete put a recent box to the taste test. Whilst he didn’t love all eight beers in the selection, what he did like was the opportunity to try beers he’d have been unlikely to come across otherwise.

Also in the box is a copy of Beer52’s in-house magazine, Ferment, sharing more information about the beers they feature. Our boxes also had a couple of extra gifts including an edition of Craft Beer Rising magazine, some crisps, a little bar of chocolate and some product leaflets.

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Review

Barcelona Beer Company, 5%
A father golden, big billowing white head. Sweet, slightly biscuit aroma, some background hops. Flavour is – surprisingly – deeply bitter which overwhelms the residual sweetness.

Cerveza Mica, 4.7%
One of the most explosive gushers I’ve seen for a while! Golden, flat white head. Honey nose, with a slight mustiness. Flavour is a little bland, slightly sweet, boring.

Charles Wells DNA, 4.5%
Copper, little head, “new world IPA”. Nose is mostly mallet, very little floral hops. Flavour is just as unremarkable – slightly fudge sweet, insipid.

Freigeist Bierkulture Hoppeditz, 7.5%
A dark reddish brown coloured beer, thin white fine bubbled head. Aroma is treacle sweet, flavour is similar, sweet, slightly bitter burnt sugar, resinous hops and dark fruit. Very nice, but not as big on the hop front as I was expecting. Over time, actually it is pretty damn hoppy, nice lingering bitterness!

Kaapse Brouwers Karel American Bitter, 4.9%
BIG white fluffy head that takes a long time to go away, deep golden colour. Aroma has nice floral hops, mineral barley. Over fizzy in the mouth, honey with quite a harsh bitterness at the back of the mouth. Average at best.

Media Biere Blanche, 5%
Golden, big but fleeting white open head. Wheat aroma, grassy with a hint of metallic. Foamy in the mouth, softly sweet and more wheat grain. Not bad, unremarkable.

Microbrasserie de la Principaute Curtius, 7%
Belgian triple, golden with a thin white head. Typical belgian yeast aroma, spic and slightly fruity. Champagne foam texture, with a slightly sour background, metallic. Tasty triple, but maybe a touch turned?

Oppigards Indian Tribute, 6.6%
Copper, mid sized fine head. Floral hop aroma, sweet and slightly toffee flavour, with fruity flavours and a nice building resinous hop kick at the end. Yum.

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COMPETITION

Beer52 have offered us two cases of beer to giveaway and we’ve set up an unusual joint competition for you between Kavey Eats and Pete Drinks. Each winner will receive a box of eight beers selected by Beer52. The prize includes free delivery to UK Mainland addresses.

Running the competition across both blogs gives you 6 chances to enter, all of which go into one big list from which two winners will be drawn randomly.

HOW TO ENTER

You can enter the competition in 3 ways via Kavey Eats and another 3 ways via Pete Drinks – the more ways you enter, the higher your chances of winning:

Entry 1 – Blog Comment
Leave a comment below, telling me about your favourite bottled beer.

Entry 2 – Twitter
Follow @Kavey, @PeteDrinks and @Beer52HQ on Twitter. Existing followers are, of course, welcome to enter! Then tweet the (exact) sentence below.
I’d love to win a box of craft beers from @Beer52HQ and Kavey Eats! http://bit.ly/ke-beer52 #KaveyEatsBeer52
(Do not add the @Kavey twitter handle into the tweet; I track twitter entries using the competition hash tag. And you don’t need to leave a blog comment about your tweet either, thanks!)

Entry 3 – Instagram
Follow @KaveyF, @PeteDrinks and @Beer52HQ on Instagram. Existing followers are, of course, welcome to enter!
Share an image of a bottle of your favourite beer via your Instagram feed. In the caption include the name of the beer, instagram usernames @KaveyF, @PeteDrinks and @Beer52HQ, and the hashtag #KaveyEatsBeer52

Entries 4-6 – PeteDrinks.com

Visit PeteDrinks.com for instructions.

RULES & DETAILS

  • The deadline for entries is midnight GMT Wednesday 24th December 2014.
  • Kavey Eats and Pete Drinks reserve the right to alter the closing date of the competition. Changes to the closing date, if they occur, will be shown on this page and the related page on PeteDrinks.com.
  • The two winner will be selected from all valid entries (across both blogs, both twitter hashtags and both instagram hashtags) 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 and Pete Drinks accept no responsibility for the acts or defaults of that third party.
  • Both prizes are one box of 8 craft beers selected by Beer52 and and include delivery within the UK Mainland.
  • The prizes cannot be redeemed for a cash value.
  • The prizes are offered and provided by Beer52.
  • Only one Kavey Eats blog entry per person. Only one Twitter #KaveyEatsBeer52 per person. Only one Instagram #KaveyEatsBeer52 per person. Only one Pete Drinks blog entry per person. Only one Twitter #PeteDrinksBeer52 per person. Only one Instagram #PeteDrinksBeer52 per person. You may enter all six ways but you do not have to do so for your entries to be valid.
  • For Twitter entries, winners must be following @Kavey, @PeteDrinks and @Beer52HQ at the time of notification. For Instagram entries, winners must be following @KaveyF, @PeteDrinks and @Beer52HQ at the 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 Instagram so please make sure you check your accounts for the notification message. If no response is received from a winner within 14 days of notification, the prize will be forfeit and a new winner will be picked and contacted.

DISCOUNT OFFER

As well as the competition, Beer52 have also set up a special discount code for our readers. Use special code KAVEYPETE10 to take advantage of a £10 reduction on any subscription, including the gift subscription. Use KAVEYPETE30 for £30 off the £48.99 gift box (which adds a book and wooden bottle opener to the usual selection of 8 beers).

Kavey Eats and Pete Drinks received product samples from Beer52.

Winners: Ashleigh Allan (Kavey Eats blog entry) and @One2CulinaryStew (Pete Drinks instagram entry).

Dec 062014
 

The world of tea is a vast one. For those happy with basic black tea in teabags (or loose) it’s pretty straightforward; every supermarket in the country stocks black tea teabags and loose leaf English Breakfast, Assam and Darjeeling are just as easy to find; Earl Grey (black tea with the addition of essential oil extracted from bergamot orange) is also universally available.

But what if you discover that oolong or green tea are more to your taste? Perhaps you hear about yellow and white teas, aged pu-erh (dark fermented tea made in China’s Yunnan province), genmaicha (Japanese green tea with roasted rice)? You’ve read that matcha and sencha are both green teas but aren’t sure how they differ? How do you learn more about them, and more importantly, how can you sample a wide range to help you narrow down which styles of tea you personally enjoy the most?

Finding out about the different teas is not too complicated. It’s a topic that wikipedia is very useful on – just search for wiki oolong, wiki matcha, wiki sencha… you get the idea. And obviously, many online tea retailers also have guides to the teas on their websites. There are specialist blogs aplenty and if you become really keen, you can buy a specialist book or two. I’ve been eyeing up this one, Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties by Kevin Gascoyne, published earlier this year.

Regular readers know I have been exploring the world of teas for some years, and I have a particular fondness for oolongs and green teas. You can look back through my many tea posts, or take a look at my Christmas tea gift guide from 2012. In that post, I mentioned Adagio Teas, a US company that started to also sell in Europe a few years ago, amongst others.

Adagio Teas offer an extensive selection, covering the range of tea styles.

They’re a great option for those looking to expand their tea repertoire – not only can you pick and choose your own selection, they also provide 9 Tea Samplers, each box containing small packets of four different teas.

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Emperor Sampler Set

The Samplers include Silk Road (Chinese black teas), Raja (Indian and Sri Lankan black teas), Chai (teas blended with a variety of spices and herbs), Tropical (teas blended with fruit), Formosa (Taiwanese green and dark oolongs), Samurai (Japanese green teas), Emperor (top quality green teas) and two more that cover herbal infusions, Garden and Rooibos.

I put three of the Samplers to the test along with two individual teas chosen from the full range.

 

Emperor Sampler Set

The Emperor Sampler Set is £13. Note that the two of four teas currently listed differ from those in my set, delivered a few months ago.

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From left to right: Silver Sprout, Dragonwell, Gyokuro, Jasmine Yin Hao, The gyokuro brews to an

Silver Sprout brews to a pretty amber and has a rich sweet aroma that reminds me of rice pudding. The taste is mild, smoky and more like an oolong than a typical green tea.

Dragonwell brews to a greeny yellow and smells like a typical green tea – it has rich intense grass, hay notes. On the palate, the grassy taste comes through, but so too does a mild dairy umami that wasn’t obvious to the nose. It’s rich but refreshingly vegetal at the same time.

Gyokuro brews bright yellow and has an uncomplicated green vegetal aroma. The flavours are gentle, a soft grassiness with a mere hint of umami savouriness.

Jasmine Yin Hao is a jasmine-infused silver tip tea – “tip” in this context refers to tiny unfurled buds, given only the lightest of processing. It brews orangey yellow and the only aroma I can detect is a strong floral scent of jasmine. On the palate too, jasmine dominates. This is a lovely floral tea, but be aware that the green tea beneath doesn’t come through very clearly.

 

Samurai Sampler Set

The Samurai Sampler Set is £9.

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From left to right: Genmaicha, Kukicha, Sencha Overture, Hojicha

Genmaicha is a popular tea in Japan; a combination of green tea and toasted rice. This one brews to a greeny yellow and has a fabulous aroma of roasted rice, like popcorn and marshmallows. It tastes as you’d expect, the rich roasted rice flavours and underneath, the clean vegetal notes of green tea. It’s rich, savoury and very comforting.

Kukicha is a blend of tea leaves and tea leaf stems. It brews to a similar greeny yellow as the genmaicha but could not be more different. The smell is lemon citrus and freshly cut grass. The citrus is on the nose only, the taste is a very light green tea. The umami savouriness is very muted, there’s no bitterness at all, this is a much lighter green than most.

Sencha Overture is a delicious green tea, and a good introduction to the style; sencha is harvested in spring and early summer and steamed rather than sun dried, which results in a clean but rich vegetal flavour. This one brews pale yellow. On the nose, it delivers a really intense sweetness, like caramelised milk and a mild vegetal scent. On the palate the green vegetable taste comes through clearly.

Sencha is produced in spring and early summer. After that, the full summer harvest creates bancha. Roasting these bancha tea leaves creates Hojicha. Adagio’s hojicha brews a dark red brown. The smell is smoky and woody. On the palate it’s rich, smoky and with hints of tobacco and wood. Very much like a well-flavoured black tea, I find.

 

Formosa Sampler Set + Hsinchu Oriental Beauty + Formosa Ali Shan

The Formosa Sampler Set is £9. A 12 gram box of Hsinchu Oriental Beauty is £9. A 34 gram box of Formosa Ali Shan is £9.

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I find the Formosa oolong (sampler set) disappointing. It’s smoky, one-dimensional black tea, with no richness or complexity of flavour. I don’t get any hint of the raisins or ripe fruits in Adagio’s description.

The Formosa Bai Hao (sampler set) brews to a paler amber than the oolong. It has a slightly more interesting aroma, milky with a little smoke. On the palate it’s a little lighter and sweeter in flavour, with a hint of milky umami. But it’s still not very complex, rich or interesting.

The Hsinchu Oriental Beauty is a world apart from the two above. It’s a highly oxidised premium grade bai hao from Taiwan’s Hsinchu county it is made up of white, green, yellow, red and brown leaves. The colour when brewed is a pale greeny brown and the aroma is amazing, a burst of floral, fruitiness. The taste is even more phenomenal than the smell with intense fruits, flowers and honeyed sweetness. I don’t have the vocabulary to do justice to the roundness of flavours, it seems to satisfy more of my tastebuds than the other teas.

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Jade oolong (sampler set) brews yellowy green and has a grassy aroma and smells like sweet milk. The taste – vegetal grassiness and the hint of umami savouriness – is a more typical of a green tea than an oolong; it’s the lighter side of the oolong style.

Pouchong (sampler set) is another lightly oxidised oolong that brews to a yellow green. The smell is intense, much sweeter, like semolina halwa with a hint of vanilla. The taste is less complex than the smell lead me to expect, in fact it’s a disappointly mild and light.

Like the pouchong, the Formosa ali shan has an intense sweet flavour, the same semolina and vanilla – I even took both cups into different rooms to check the scent of one wasn’t influencing the other! This time, the promise of the aromas comes through on the palate. It’s rich, fruity, a little sweet and with the merest hint of green grass, and it fills the palate, much like the Hsinchu bai hao.

 

To recap, the samplers provide a great way to try lots of teas without breaking the bank. Of the ones I tried, the Samurai was my clear favourite. Or, of course, buy any of the teas individually.

Adagio are currently running a pre-Christmas offer of free standard UK delivery on orders over £20 (usually it’s a £30 minimum spend to qualify for free shipping). This offer is available on their website till December 14th!

Kavey Eats received product samples from Adagio Teas.

 

You might think it a little strange for me to interview my own husband, since I might reasonably be expected to know most, if not all, of his answers! But of course, Monday Meet The Blogger is about sharing the blogs I love with a wider audience. So please read on to find out more about Pete Drinks, a blog where Pete talks about beer, whisky and coffee.

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Is there a story behind your blog’s name?

Not really; I started out writing guest spots on Kavey Eats and it just seemed the obvious name!

Why did you choose to blog about drink?

Honestly? It all came about because after a spate of food arriving at the house for Kavey to review; I (jokingly) asked Kavey why she never got offered beer. I was slightly horrified to learn that she had turned down such offers because she didn’t write about beer. She said she’d accept the next offer if I would write the review, and in the meantime invited me to guest post about beers I already had in the house. That sounds bad, because it makes it seem like I was only in it for free beer but actually I very quickly realised I just liked writing about beer and I didn’t care whether it was free or not.

The trouble with only making guest posts on someone else’s blog is that I soon found myself asking for yet another slot and being told that I’d have to wait a month. By that stage, I’d accepted that it wasn’t going to be a short-lived hobby so it seemed time to cut myself adrift and set up my very own blog.

Of course, the downside to that is that I don’t get to enjoy all the lovely traffic that came with being on a popular blog like Kavey Eats! [I didn’t pay him to say that! KF]

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Does blogging about drink present any particular challenges?

I don’t think the challenges are particularly specific to drink – they’re the same whenever you’re reviewing anything. You have to try and form an impartial opinion on something (the easy bit) and then put into words why you’ve reached that conclusion (the hard bit).

The other challenge is vocabulary; describing a beer (or anything else for that matter) is hard if you’re not in the habit of doing so – those first few cringe-worthy posts are filled with useful descriptions like “malty” and “bitter” which is a bit like describing the Antarctic as “a bit cold”; technically correct, but not exactly informative.

One of the joys of blogging is that it forces you to think far more deeply about what you’re tasting, and search for different ways to describe those tastes. I used to laugh at some of the Jilly Goolden-like excesses of tasting notes, but the more I try and understand flavour, the more I understand where she’s coming from.

The downside, of course, is that there’s always a small voice telling me that what I’m writing is unbearably pretentious twaddle when I begin waxing lyrical!

You mainly focus on coffee, whisky and beer. Why?

When I started, I was dedicated to beer, because that was what I knew most about (although not, to be honest, a great deal back then) and beer blogging appeared to be “a thing”.

It was over a year before I branched out into whisky, and that was largely caused by the large Drinks by the Dram parcel I got for my birthday. In many ways, that felt like going back to my initial days of talking about beer, because there was an entirely different palette of flavours to recognise.

Coffee came another year later; I’d tended to be a Nescafe Instant drinker to be honest, until I ended up working in an office where we had a coffee club – any time we bought a coffee we’d not tried before, Phil would demand our marks out of ten and we slowly built up a revealing list of our favourites. They knew I was a drinks blogger, so when they suggested I should add coffee to my repertoire, I took the plunge.

When you are pulling together a new review post, what are the similarities and differences when talking about coffee, whisky and beer?

The vocabularies and flavour palettes are different, but the basic questions you’re asking are the same: how does it smell? how does it taste? do I like it? and above all, why (or why not)?!

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Many of your posts are about your home-brewing experiences. What are your top homebrew tips to share with a) a complete novice b) a kit brewer thinking of branching out?

a) Just go for it. It’s dead easy, it’s cheap to start out and beer comes out the other end. Buy a kit, and get stuck in. Ignore anything you read about water treatment.

I would suggest you resist diving into homebrew forums at all to start with; they are fantastic resources of information and opinion, but they’re also full of people who will insist that if you don’t do everything exactly the way they do, that your beer will be ruined, destined to go down the drain. It will scare you out of doing anything.

Above all, keep in mind that people were brewing beer in mud huts five thousand years ago, and they didn’t have digital thermometers back then. Sure, if you’re a commercial brewer trying to reproduce the same beer day after day you need to be precise, but for the novice home-brewer, you can get away with a lot of errors (trust me!)

b) Stop using kits! “Brewing” with cans of extract is a little bit like baking cakes with packet mixes – sure, it produces something roughly beer-like (or cake-like) at the end of it, but you’ve only been half-involved. This ties a little into the first part of this question, because I’d say that if possible, complete novices should jump straight into ‘real’ brewing from the beginning.

Brewing from grain gives you so much more flexibility, and really doesn’t make things all that more complicated. If you can make a cup of tea, you can make all-grain beer. And it’ll taste better.

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What’s been the homebrew you’ve been most pleased with, and why?

That’s a little like asking a parent to pick their favourite child!

My Coffee Porter is an obvious one, because I got to brew it in a real brewery, sell it in a real pub and see real people paying actual money to drink it.

Have you had any homebrew disasters? What happened?

I’ve made plenty of mistakes – getting mash temperatures wildly out, managing to start a brew day without checking that I actually had all the ingredients and having to re-write the recipe on the fly – but things invariably work out ok. Beer really wants to be made.

Perhaps the closest to ‘disaster’ was the time I realised (at the end of the boil) that I’d forgotten to fit the hop filter inside the boiler. The hop filter is essentially a strainer that keeps the hops back in the boiler, and stops them from clogging up the tap when you’re trying to get all your lovely beer out.

After realising that just trying to carry on wasn’t going to work (the tap was so plugged up by hops that nothing was coming out) I eventually had to plunge my (thoroughly washed!) arm into still-rather-hot wort and fit the damn filter with the boiler still full.

Again, the beer came out fine at the end of it all.

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For those who don’t have an understanding of the brewing process, can you give us a brief explanation of the process; a short dummies guide?

Beer only (normally) has four ingredients; malted grain, hops, water and yeast. It also has four basic steps:

  1. Soak the malted grain in hot water (65degrees, give or take) for an hour. This extracts the sugar from the malt, and gives you a sweet liquid (called wort).
  2. Boil the wort for an hour (after straining out the malt grain), adding hops along the way. Hops added at the start of the boil mainly contribute bitterness to the beer, while hops added later in the process (especially in the last 15 minutes) are more about flavour and aroma.
  3. Once the wort has cooled down (and you’ve strained out the hops), add the yeast. This is the bit that turns all those sugars into alcohol.
  4. Drink!

If you can make a cup of tea and boil and egg, you’ve already mastered the fundamental techniques.

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As you also feature in many of the cooking posts on Kavey Eats, we must surely squeeze in some cooking questions…

What are your earliest memories of cooking? Who or what inspired you to cook?

Growing up, my cooking was limited to making cakes with my mum. It’s fair to say that we weren’t an adventurous family, food-wise so those cakes were limited to what was in Mrs. Beeton – Victoria sponges and butterfly cakes.

I’m not sure I could claim to be “inspired” to cook; at University it was more of a necessity than a passion, but over time being married to a foodie changes your perspective!

What recipe are you fondest / proudest of?

I’m not sure I’d describe myself as *proud* of any of my recipes; I mean I can produce tasty enough food, but I don’t see myself signing up to MasterChef any time soon.

The recipe that’s been most widely (and positively!) enjoyed is probably my Chocolate Porter Cake. I somehow agreed to take part in a Great Chocolate Cake-Off at Chocolate Unwrapped, and ended up creating a Devil’s Food Cake-based affair, liberally laced with Fuller’s excellent London Porter, in the sponge and the filling. And the cream on top.

It’s not the prettiest cake in the world – I still have the same design skills as I had when I was 8 years old – but it’s damn tasty.

I also had fun making up a paprika ginger beer recipe for a mixer challenge!

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Is there a particular style of beer you seek out most often?

Short answer, no. The slightly longer answer is, I’ll usually seek out something different to the beer I’ve just finished!

Which single beer could you not live without?

Honestly, I’m not sure there is one. There are about a million different beers out there, and while I’d be sad if, say, Bristol Beer Factory’s Southville Hop was suddenly discontinued, I’m sure I’d find something to take its place in my affections!

Are there beer styles you don’t like or think are overrated?

I don’t get Pilsners. It’s not that I don’t like them; I just don’t see why they seem to be so revered among beer “experts”.

What are the current trends in the beer scene? How do you feel about them?

Cans seem to be very trendy right now; as with so many things, British breweries are starting to import the US concept of putting their beer into cans rather than bottles. Of course, beer in cans is hardly revolutionary – Special Brew has been in cans for decades – it’s something new for “premium” beers.

In theory, it’s a superior package – light-proof, more robust and far lighter than glass bottles. In practice… I’m unconvinced. I generally find them over-carbonated and while I’ll happily drink from a bottle sometimes, I just don’t enjoy drinking beer straight from the can.

I probably need to do more research.

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What are your top three criteria for a great pub? Do you have a favourite pub? Why?

  1. Decent beer – by which I mean, (a) well kept, (b) not too damn cold, and (c) a decent – and changing – selection.
  2. Peace – going to the pub is a social experience; I want to be able to hear the people I’m with, not loud music or a blaring TV
  3. Food – having decent food means there’s a better chance of me being able to persuade my food-loving, beer-hating beloved to go to the pub with me!

Happily, our local – The Bohemia – ticks all those boxes quite nicely, and happens to be a brewery too!

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What are the biggest turn offs for you, in the pubs you don’t like?

TV. I HATE pub TV. I loathe it. There are few things more likely to stop me from even going into a pub. I’d rather – MUCH rather – be in a smoke-filled pub than a Sky Sports-filled one.

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How did you get into whisky?

Unlike beer, I haven’t always loved whisky. I put this down to my initial taste, in my teens, when I somehow acquired a small bottle of Teachers and decided that whisky was icky. To be fair to Teachers, I don’t think my teenage palate would have fallen in love with the finest single malt but the experience formed a firm belief that whisky was some sort of grain-flavoured sink cleaner.

Fast forward many years to the time we went up to Aberdeen to visit one of my wife’s friends. I’m sure we chatted and had a very pleasant time on the way in from the airport, but in my memory I’m convinced the first words this formidable Scots lady said to me were: “So, I hear you don’t like whisky, Pete. We’ll see about that!” – whereupon she opened a huge cupboard filled with an alarming number of bottles. A few were selected and pulled out onto the table; she is (and therefore, I am) a big Islay fan and decided that Lagavulin was an excellent distillery with which to start my education.

The rest of that evening is something of a haze. I do remember calling a halt to proceedings, having not yet even ventured past Islay, on the basis that I could no longer feel my face. Despite this, I was converted and have been on a voyage of discovery on the sea of whisky ever since.

What is your favourite style of whisky?

With that kind of start, I’ve always had a love of the big, powerful, smoky whiskies of Islay, and many of the other Scottish Island whiskies are the same.

That said, I’m developing an appreciation of bourbon too.

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You’ve visited Japan twice in the last two years and enjoyed trying Japanese whisky. How does Japanese whisky compare to Scotch and what might be a good bottle to buy for someone who’s not tried any before?

It’s probably closer to Scotch than whisky from other countries, although they’re not generally big on peat. The biggest difference is that they tend to benefit a lot more from a drop of water being added to them – I suspect that’s largely because the Japanese largely drink whisky with water, rather than straight up as we do.

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You’re a keen coffee drinker but have steered clear of the more pretentious side of coffeephilia. Tell us your thoughts on enjoying coffee as a regular coffee drinker.

There’s a lot of snobbery around coffee; as with everything I think it’s best to ignore what “the right way” is. For example, when I taste and review coffee I make it the same way as I drink it – in a big mug, with milk.

Now a coffeephile will tell you that a straight espresso is “the right way” to taste coffee and in a sense they’re right – diluting it with water and milk alters the flavour, but I don’t drink it that way normally. What’s the point in reviewing coffee in a form I never normally drink it?

What’s your top tip for an affordable tasty coffee to drink at home?

Buy an Aeropress; it’s the neatest, simplest device for brewing ground coffee. Then start working your way through the coffee in your local supermarket – there’s a huge range and something for everybody’s taste, and none of it very expensive.

For my money, you can’t go wrong with Taylor’s, and it’s often on special offer. Their After Dark remains one of my “go-to” coffees.

What are your thoughts on the increasing popularity of pod coffee machines?

Bemusement. Why buy a machine that restricts you to only drinking a limited range of (very expensively packaged) coffees? I genuinely do not get the point of them.

That said, I’ve never actually lived with one so maybe I’m missing something AMAZING about them.

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Since I’m a travel addict, you get dragged around the world regularly…

What’s been your favourite destination thus far, from a drinker’s perspective? Can you share a favourite memory from the trip?

Whenever I travel I’ve always got my eye open for the local beer; I don’t see the point of going to another country and heading for the nearest Englishe Pubbe for an overpriced half-litre of John Smiths.

Amsterdam was an impressive beer experience (largely thanks to some excellent pre-trip research not done by me!), although it’s hardly an exotic destination!

What’s the very first trip you remember taking?

Hayling Island, as a child. I don’t remember there being much beer, but I do remember an arcade machine that you could win bubble gum out of.

Where are you going next?

Washington DC. I’ve heard Americans can make quite good beer these days…

What three things can you never travel without? 

Camera, Kindle and Kavey :)

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Since you started blogging, has your style and content changed over time, and if so, in what ways?

I write more better.

Ahem. I write longer and more conversationally (sometimes to the frustration of my editor). I’ve become way better at self-editing. I’m even getting over my (incorrect) use of the possessive apostrophe in “it’s”.

Mostly, though, I just suck less than I used to. Writing, like everything else, is something you just have to do a lot – badly – before you learn how to do it properly.

What is the hardest aspect of blogging for you?

Getting around to it. Once I actually sit down and start typing it’s pretty painless, but I’m very bad at the starting part.

What inspires you to keep blogging?

I just enjoy writing, and blogging about drink gives me the focus to actually put some words down, and the freedom to keep it pretty short.

Blogging killed the newspaper star. What do you think bloggers bring to the arena that differentiates you from traditional journalists?

A lack of professionalism. And I mean that in a good way.

Journalists are, ultimately, bound by the person paying the bills – the publisher, the client, or whoever. Bloggers aren’t (or rather, shouldn’t be) so we can follow our hearts more easily.

The line is blurred because there’s such a wide spectrum of bloggers, from those who are just in it for fun – like me – to those who are looking for the book deal, the sponsorship deal, or the “real” journalism job.

The kind of blogging I do isn’t, in my mind, journalism. It’s standing on a box at Speaker’s Corner. I’m just talking about stuff I want to talk about – if someone stops and listens, that’s great but at the end of the day I’m not doing it for them. I’m doing it for me.

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You grow fruit, vegetables, wheat and hops in your garden and allotment…

What do you love about doing that?

I like seeing stuff grow. I like how the garden and the allotment changes every day, even if it is just weeds half the time. I enjoy the tidiness of a freshly weeded bed (although that rarely happens!) and the peace of being out in the fresh air watching the robins watch me dig up worms for them.

Obviously it’s great to get real edible stuff out at the other end, but it’s the journey more than the destination that matters. If I was only in it for the crop, it would be cheaper and easier to go to Aldi.

What’s the hardest aspect?

Getting around to it. Once I’m there I’m happy to do the work, but I’m rubbish at taking that first step (I’m starting to see a pattern in these answers….)

What’s new on your list to grow next year?

Barley. I already grow hops, so the next logical step is to grow some barley, figure out how the hell to malt it, and make beer genuinely from scratch.

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What are you absolutely loving cooking/ eating/ drinking right now?

I recently found a case of my homebrew Coffee Stout lurking forgotten at the back of the cupboard. That was a very happy discovery!

What’s the single most popular post on your blog?

By a considerable margin, my Alcoholic Ginger Beer tasting. I should probably do more things like that!

 

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Enjoyed this interview? Read the rest of the series, here.

 

Yao Yao Cha means Shake Shake Tea in Chinese. The naming approach tickles me and certainly the little shop in London’s Seven Dials area has shaken up the local bubble tea market since it opened earlier this year. Yao Yao Cha’s founder and owner Susan Fang was born in Taiwan but has lived in New York, Dubai, Seoul, Beijing and now London (a city she describes as the most vibrant she’s lived in to date; I’ll drink bubble tea to that!)

In launching this business she wanted to bring us an authentic taste from her childhood, adding global influences gleaned from her globetrotting lifestyle.

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The storefront on Earlham Street and Dagaz, our friendly server

The menu offers classic Taiwanese bubble tea options alongside modern, global flavours.

Bubble tea (aka boba tea), for those who’ve not come across it before, is simply a glass of (usually) sweetened tea with a generous spoonful of tapioca pearls at the bottom. Served with an extra wide straw that allows you to suck the little spheres of tapioca up as you drink. I’ve found that most people either love or hate the chewy texture of the tapioca, with some of my friends describing them as frogspawn (how do they know?) and others delighting in the bounce, as I do.

Most bubble drink cafes sell a variety of drinks, so if tea isn’t your thing (and there are quite a few different teas to choose from) you one of a range of frappés instead. For tea drinkers, there’s matcha green tea, a range of fruit-flavoured jasmine green teas, several black teas including ones flavoured with salted caramel, chocolate, strawberry and lemon. Frappés include blueberry, mango, passion fruit, chocolate and even crème brulée!

The teas can be ordered hot or cold, though personally I think cold works best with bubbles.

Don’t worry if you don’t think you’ll like traditional bubbles either; another option is to order your drink with fruit pop spheres – tiny liquid-filled spheres available in a range of flavours, with not a hint of chewiness to them. Or maybe you’d prefer a flavoured jelly, chopped into teeny tiny cubes?

Teas are £3.50/ £4.50 (regular/ large) and include a portion of tapioca. Frappés are £4.00 and include one flavour of fruit pops or jelly. Extra fruit pops or jellies can be added to any of the drinks.

Oh and, if you visit in the evening, YYC are usually running a 2 for 1 offer on the bubble teas.

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Sweet milky black tea with lychee pops and salted caramel black tea with tapioca pearls.

Newer to the menu is the range of shaved ice desserts, known as baobing in Chinese and hugely popular across China and much of East Asia.

We had a lovely time chatting to Dagaz who came to London from Taiwan just a few months ago and is really enjoying working in Yao Yao Cha, improving his English and exploring the architecture of London.

On his recommendation, we went for one traditional shaved ice (with condensed milk syrup, taro, crème brulée pudding, tapioca pearls and red bean paste) and one modern option with fruit pops and jellies and a mango fruit syrup.

Tapioca pearls are included for free (if you want them) and the £5 price includes three additional toppings of your choice. Of course, you can add more if you like, for 50 pence per topping. Portions are enormous and one is plenty for two to share, or even three if you’ve just stuffed yourself with huge bowls of ramen, as we had!

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Shaved ice with traditional toppings; shaved ice with mango syrup and a selection of fruit pops and jellies

With lots of great restaurants in the immediate vicinity, I hope lots of Londoners discover the pleasure of a shaved ice dessert. With all the sugary toppings, it’s not a healthier option but it makes a refreshing alternative to the creaminess of ice cream and it’s particularly appealing when the weather is warm.

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of Yao Yao Cha.

 

When it comes to tourism in Belgium, Brussels gets a bad rap.

Go to Bruges, they say, for the picturesque canals and mediaeval centre.
Go to Antwerp, they say, for world class art and hipster fashion.
Go to Ghent, they say, for more of the same plus cycling too.
Go to Ypres, they say, for WW1 history.

But Brussels? Brussels is often dismissed as little more than a hub for politicians and lobbyists.

Of course, there’s much more to Brussels than politics! Yes, Brussels is the home of the European Union, NATO and the United Nation’s European office…

…but it is also the capital of a country of two halves – the Dutch-speaking Flemish region of Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia in the South. Multicultural Brussels, the third region of the country, is bilingual though French is now more prevalent than Dutch. These days English is widely spoken as well as many other languages, indeed it’s said that as much as half the population speak neither French nor Dutch as their native tongue.

As a Londoner, one of the things I find most appealing about Brussels is this sense of multiculturalism. Although the issue of language is still a hot potato for many Belgians, especially when it comes to education and cultural identity, Brussels is a city that is very open to the world.  Indeed, we chat to Pierre from the local tourist board who tells us that the people of Brussels refer to themselves as zinneke (bastard dogs), wearing their mongrel heritage with pride. Pierre is himself the perfect example – his mother is gipsy, his father Walloon and Flemish, his wife Brazilian and his sisters are married to a German, a Frenchman and a Czech, respectively!

Brussels is a vibrant city with a historic heart and a modern outlook. And the Eurostar service takes you from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi-Zuid in less than two and a half hours!

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When it comes to sightseeing, you still can’t beat a good old-fashioned guide book, or the website equivalent. I won’t try to recreate that here but suggest that as well as the popular Gothic and baroque buildings of the Grand Place and surrounding narrow cobbled streets, the shiny Atomium housing a variety of exhibitions and the incomprehensibly mobbed corner where the Mannekin Pis resides you might want to look up Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis – the squatting female and doggie equivalents of Mannekin, the Belgian Comic Strip Centre (and the Comic Strip walk that takes you past comics painted on the walls of a number of buildings), an amazing array of grand buildings such as the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula, the Bourse (stock exchange), the Royal Palace, the Basilique du Sacré Coeur and the architecture of art nouveau architect Victor Horta. Lovers of literature, art, history and even cars, will also appreciate several excellent museums in Brussels.

Instead, I’m going to share my tips for some great places to eat, drink, shop and sleep.

 

Chocolates and Patisserie

Brussels is awash with shops selling chocolate, but much of what’s on sale is cheap, bulk-manufactured products that are hardly worth wasting suitcase space for. Here are the ones that are worth seeking out.

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Laurent Gerbaud is one of Belgium’s rising chocolatiers and is fighting an uphill battle to move Belgians on from the idea of “Belgian chocolate” to an understanding of the actual origins and varieties available.

Like several chocolatiers I’ve met, Laurent was a chef first; he came to chocolate via chocolate sculpture with an artist friend, and that lead, eventually, to his current career. As a child, he developed an interest in China, perhaps because of several friendships he had with Chinese and Taiwanese families. He worked in Chinese restaurants, took courses in Chinese and, after a university degree in history, finally moved to China for a couple of years. There, he discovered that the Chinese don’t have as sweet a tooth as Europeans and he lost his taste for high sugar sweets. When he came back to Belgium, he had the obvious thought of bringing his experiences in China into his chocolate making but realised he wasn’t inspired by fusion flavours. Instead, he focused on quality ingredients, including some sourced from Asia.

Today, the Chinese influences is perhaps most evident in his logo which is an artistic interpretation of the Chinese hanzi characters for “chocolate” and his name.

Laurent is keen to make chocolate that people love to eat; he says “one of my purposes is to make junk food – you eat one and you want another because it’s really good”. Judging by the chocolates we tasted, he’s nailed it – I could have eaten a whole box of the chocolates made with dried figs from Turkey and candied oranges from Italy. His shop on Rue Ravenstein is also a boutique tea room, with plans to extend the service to offer a savoury menu too.

Tip: Of course, you can visit his shop just to buy some of his excellent chocolate, but for a more personal experience, book a chocolate tasting or chocolate making workshop.

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Pierre Marcolini is one of the few Belgian chocolatiers to make chocolate from bar to bean, before then using it to make a range of chocolates. His chocolate shop at 2 Rue de Minimes is certainly full of temptation but what I recommend above the chocolate is a visit to the address around the corner at 39 Grote Zavel, where his spectacular patisserie is sold. I found the macarons surprisingly disappointing but a glossy strawberry patisserie was a winner.

Other famous chocolate brands in Brussels include Wittamer (a long standing bakery and chocolate business) and Frederic Blondeel (a chef turned chocolatier who also makes chocolate from bean to bar).

 

Speculoos Biscuits

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Speculoos, hailing from Belgium and The Netherlands, are spiced shortcrust biscuits that were originally associated with the feast of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in early December. Made from flour, brown sugar and butter with a spice mix that usually includes cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper, these days they are popular and available all year round.

Maison Dandoy, established in 1829, makes a range of sweet bakery products but is best known for its traditional speculoos and gingerbread biscuits. These days, it has a handful of shops in Brussels, but its worth making a trip to its oldest remaining store at 31 Rue au Beurre, to admire the beautiful wooden biscuit moulds lining the shelves. The Tea Room on Rue Charles Buls (also known as Karel Bulsstraat) is larger, offering the opportunity to enjoy a wide range of biscuits, pastries and drinks inside. There are an additional four shops in Brussels, plus one in nearby Waterloo.

Having tried several supermarket brands of speculoos biscuit, I was surprised to discover that it’s not just a case of fancy shops and branding – the Maison Dandoy speculoos biscuits are definitely superior!

We also tried Dandoy’s pain à la Grecque, a crunchy bread-cum-biscuit coated with pearled sugar crystals. I was more fascinated by the origins of the name than the biscuit itself – over two centuries ago, the monks of a local Augustine abbey used to support the city’s destitute by giving them bread. The abbey was located near a place known as Wolvengracht (Wolves Ditch); the gracht pronounced grecht in local dialect. Over time, pain a la grecht morphed into pain à la Grecque, confusing generations of shoppers with its erroneous suggestion of a Greek origin.

Tip: If you’re as huge a fan of speculoos biscuits as we are, make a quick visit to a supermarket to pick up a couple of extra large packs of mass-produced biscuits as well. There’s a mini supermarket in Brussels Midi Station.

 

Cuberdons

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I first fell for cuberdons over two decades ago, and if anything, I love them even more today. A purply-dark red colour and conical in shape, the cuberdon is a raspberry-flavoured gummy sweet, firm on the outside with an oozing interior. In Dutch, it’s known as a neus (nose), in French it’s called a chapeau-de-curé or chapeau-de-prêtre (priest’s hat).

You can find cuberdons in quite a few sweet shops in Brussels, several of which sell multiple colours and flavours, a relatively recent phenomenon. But we’ve found that the best prices for regular raspberry cuberdons is from the Cric-Crac sweet shop inside Brussels Midi station, which sells by weight.

Tip: These sweets are best eaten within a couple of weeks of purchase, as the liquid centre can crystallise and harden if left for too long.

 

Waffles

Belgian Waffles fall into two types.

Firm, rich and chewy Gaufre de Liège (Liège Waffle) are made from an adapted brioche-dough and work well both hot and cold. These are usually oval in shape and have a slightly crunchy exterior from the crystallised sugar that has caramelised against the waffle iron. They’re great for eating on the hoof as they’re traditionally eaten plain (though you can buy them with toppings too if you prefer).

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Rectangular Brussels Waffles are made with a leavened batter, resulting in a much lighter and airier texture and are definitely at their best enjoyed hot, fresh from the waffle iron. Traditionally, Brussels waffles are served with a dusting of icing sugar but these days you can choose from a wide selection of toppings including ice cream, chocolate sauce and fruits. But I suggest you ignore all of those and ask for your waffle with a generous dollop of speculoos paste. With a texture much like smooth peanut butter, this sweet spread is the same flavour as the famous biscuit and melts wonderfully into the indentations of a freshly-cooked hot waffle.

Tip: You’ll find waffles on sale all over Brussels, often from hole-in-the wall vendors, but if you want to sit down and eat, try Maison Dandoy’s Tearoom.

 

Beer & Bars

Belgium is world famous for its beers and rightly so, with a rich tradition that goes back many, many centuries. The range of beers produced by Belgian breweries is impressive, including pale, golden, amber, red and dark ales, dubbels and tripels, Flemish sour brown, Champagne beers (which receive a second fermentation using the method now most strongly associated with Champagne), wheat beers and lambics (spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts that are native to the brewery, as opposed to the addition of cultivated yeasts).

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Both Pete and I absolutely love what owner Jean Hummler is offering at his two bars, Moeder Lambic and Moeder Lambic Fontainas, located at 68 rue de Savoie and 8 place Fontainas, respectively. He started the first bar less than five years ago, after a career working for industrial food businesses in France.

He starts off by telling us why he wanted to do something different; “most places are not very selective, they sell coca cola and junk food” and their beer selection is not very inspiring either. He is committed to selling only quality produce and that applies to the beers, the food and even the soft drinks. He has two key criteria, the way a product is made and how it tastes. “Making money and brewing great beer are often not the same job”, he laughs. He looks for products that are made by hand, adding that he doesn’t want “industrial anything”. For a beer to be selected it must be made with craft and it must pass the taste test – it must taste good! Right now, he has approximately 150 beers on the menu of which 46 are on tap. These include beers from around the world, including a number from the UK.

The same principles apply to his sourcing of cheeses and charcuterie (which form the main thrust of the simple menu) and the non-beer drinks menu (which includes some delicious farmhouse apple juice, for those less interested in the beers).

The cheese selection (€12.5) is utterly wonderful; all are raw milk cheeses and range from soft and mild to fantastically pungent, each one a genuine delight. In the centre of the serving board is a bowl of pottekees – a blend of fresh white cheese, onion, pepper and lambic beer. Just as excellent is the meat selection (€12.5) which includes garlic sausage, French sausage, paté made with geuze beer, hâte levée – pork cooked slowly in bouillon with garlic and spices, Tierenteyn mustard, Belgian pickles (which are a lot like piccalilli). Both plates are served with a basket of bread and a superb raw milk butter.

As he introduces each item on the plates, his enthusiasm for the producers and their products is self-evident; “The idea is to offer another selection, another quality, another explanation that most people don’t know exists”.

Two other key policies for Hummler are ensuring that all his staff know and love the product range, and establishing strong relationships with each supplier – and one (of many) ways he furthers both is the Moeder Fucker series of beers brewed by Le Paradis microbrewery not far from Nancy, in France. For each beer he sends two of his staff to the brewery to help make it; they decide which style of beer to make and work with the brewery team to create their vision. During our visit, Moeder Fucker IV was on tap.

As we talked, Pete tried five beers, guided by Hummler through the staggering range available. He drank Taras Boulba by local Brasserie de la Senne (Belgium), Moeder Fucker IV by Le Paradis (France), Mozaic Black by Mont Saleve (France), Cuvée De Ranke by Ranke (Belgium) and Fièvre de Cacao by Thiriez (France).

In the end, Hummler is a man after my own heart. “We all have to decide. Each citizen has to decide what they want to do with their life. I decided for myself that I wanted to eat very good food. I eat less and less meat, maybe once a week but what I eat is very good, like the chicken that is aged 120 days on a small farm. Taste is very important to me.

Tip: Ask staff for guidance in selecting beers for your own beer flight.

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Small and traditional pub La Fleur en Papier Doré was the perfect place to meet local friends for an evening drink. At 55 Rue des Alexiens, it was very close to our bed and breakfast, and also easy to reach by local bus. The menu shares a little of the history of the bar, housed in a small maisonette that dates from the mid 18th century. In the past it housed a convent, which moved to a new home in the middle of the 20th century. As a pub, it became the favoured meeting place of the Surrealist cultural movement with regulars including René Magritte; a few decades later it was a focus point for the Cobra (avant-garde) movement, creators of experimental art and philosophy. Mementos of both remain on the well-worn walls of the cosy pub, protected (along with the façade, the ground floor rooms and some of the furniture) by the local government which has decreed them of historical value.

Stop for a few beers (and some charcuterie) or for a simple meal.

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The Cantillon Brewery welcomes visitors for brewery tours (7 Euros including a beer) or to buy beer. You can buy to drink in or takeaway; lovers of lambic will particularly enjoy a visit. The address at 56 Rue Gheude is only a short walk from the central tourist district.

 

Lunch Stops

My first recommendation for a light lunch is the cheese plate and charcuterie selection at Moeder Lambic, above. Super quality, and each provides a generous portion for the price.

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Another great option is recently opened Peck 47 (amusingly named for its address at 47 Rue Marche Aux Poulets). This all day cafe offers a short menu of home made sandwiches, salads, soups, cakes, fresh juices, smoothies and a small selection of local beers. For just €8, my poached eggs on sourdough with smoked salmon and homemade relish was far more generous than I expected and all the items were of excellent quality. The eggs were perfectly poached, the salad nicely dressed and the home made relish very good indeed. Pete’s sandwich – roast chicken, rocket, lemon and basil mayo and slow roasted tomatoes – also impressed, for €5.

Tip: A particularly nice touch is that the free tap water is stored in the drinks fridge in large bottles stuffed with mint. Ask for some!

 

A Traditional Dinner

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I have to say from the off – don’t go to Restobieres if you’re looking for great service. The three staff on duty ranged from friendly but incompetent through utterly disinterested to downright sullen. That usually stops me from recommending a place but Restobieres is a good option if you’re keen to try traditional Belgian dishes alongside a range of Belgian beers.

Herve Cheese Croquets (€10) were a tasty comfort food, served hot and freshly fried. Homemade paté with Rochefort and foie gras  (€12) was a generous slab; light on the foie gras but tasty nonetheless. My calf’s liver with shallots and Chouffe  (€20) was decent; I really liked the beer and shallot sauce. Pete had satisfactory steak and chips with another good sauce and a generous well-dressed salad. The star of the mains was our friend’s bloempanch blood pudding (€12) which was both tasty and generously portioned for the price.

The only duff note (with the exception of the service) was a scoop of speculoos biscuit ice cream (€4) which we decided could only possibly have been made by a chef who’d never tasted speculoos (and not bothered to look up a recipe for the spices usually used). The texture was unpleasantly gritty too.

Located at 9 rue des Renards, not far from the Jeu de Balle flea market.

 

Brussel’s Modern Dining Scene

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I already explained how much we liked the multicultural vibe in Brussels. This goes equally for the food scene, which has some great restaurants to explore. One such place launched just a few weeks before our visit; located along very trendy Rue de Flandre in the Sainte Catherine district, Gramm is a restaurant offering bold, inventive and modern food. It’s headed up by Chef Erwan Kenzo Nakata, who grew up in Brittany to a French father and Japanese mother, thus explaining some of the eclectic Japanese touches to otherwise modern French cooking.

The evening offering is a fixed tasting menu, 6 courses for €38. Although the courses are individually quite small, we felt very satisfied at the end of our meal, having enjoyed the array of tastes, textures and colours in Nakata’s self-assured dishes.

While I felt the food was good value, I was less impressed with the drinks pricing, for wines, beers and soft drinks (which were served in shockingly tiny glasses) so if you’re on a fixed budget, keep an eye on your drinks orders to avoid a shock at the end of the evening. Also, do set aside plenty of time. Service is very warm and friendly but the wait between courses, even in a nearly empty restaurant, is a little longer than ideal.

Tip: Don’t be shy about asking for more of the excellent bread and butter, by the way, it’s great for mopping up some of the juices and sauces!

 

The Marolles Flea Market

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Usually, I’m not much of a shopper but offer me the chance to browse a car boot sale or flea market and I’m instantly excited, so I was very keen to return to the famous Marolles Flea Market held daily in the Place du Jeu de Balle. On sale is a charming mix of cheap tat and more expensive “antiques”; it’s definitely a case of one man’s rubbish being another man’s treasure. With my love of retro kitchenware, I was in heaven as there’s plenty of it here, at very bargainous prices. It’s actually a miracle I came away with only a couple of ornate old teaspoons and two Nestle branded cups and saucers in amber glass – there was, I think, a complete set of six in the box but most were too chicken-shit-and-feather covered to assess very well, so I just bought the two cleanest ones for a whopping €1!

The market runs every day of the year. Official start times state that it starts at 6 am and finishes at 2pm on weekdays, 3pm on weekends.

Tip: Take lots of small change with you and of course, be prepared to haggle!

Brussels has many more markets to visit including markets for art, food, flowers and vintage clothes.

 

An Elegant Pillow

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X2B Brussels is a family run luxury bed and breakfast in the heart of Brussels, just a few minutes walk from the Grand Place. The three guest bedrooms are each on a different floor – we booked the first floor double and were delighted to discover a vast room with soaringly high ceilings, simple and elegant furnishings and a very generous en-suite bathroom. Do note that none of the rooms have step-free access and, as you’d expect in a private home, there is no lift. Guests are welcomed either by owner Xavier or his mother Monique, who sit down with guests on arrival to share tips for visiting Brussels, personalised to their guests’ interests. Breakfast is excellent: a basket of fresh bread and pastries with an enormous selection of jams and spreads, cheese and cold hams, yoghurt, eggs however you’d like them, rounded off by coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. The hot freshly made raisin bread pain perdu is a lovely touch. Free wifi is also a boon, for those of us who like to stay connected. From £160 a night including breakfast.

Tip: make sure you jot down the house number as well as the street name; there’s no obvious sign on the outside so we walked up and down the same stretch of road several times, eventually identifying the B&B only by peering at the tiny labels for individual doorbells.

 

Getting Around

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In terms of getting around, the key sites in Brussels are within a fairly small area and its certainly possible to walk. But you can also make use of the metro and tram network, as well as local buses. The Brussels Card gives unlimited use of public transport, free entry into some attractions, discounted entry into many more and discounts in shops and restaurants too. You will also be given a free city map. Available for 24, 48 or 72 hours for 24€, 36€ or 43€.

 

With thanks to Eurostar for the complimentary return tickets between London and Brussels and thanks to the Brussels Tourist Board for their assistance in planning some of our sightseeing highlights and their insight into historic and modern Brussels.

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