I’m often asked ‘what is Indian food?’“, says chef Atul Kochhar. His usual answer? “I don’t know!

He explains that with so many regions and so many different religions (each with their own cooking practices), there is no one answer to that question.

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India, much like England, has absorbed so many culinary influences and ingredients over time.

Everything that has come to India, India has been amazing at adapting it.

Take, for example, that “quintessentially Indian dish, tandoori chicken … the mighty tandoor doesn’t belong to India, it belongs to the Persians!” Chilli, an ingredient often considered intrinsic to Indian cooking, was incorporated only a few hundred years ago; “before that, we had pepper“. And “omelettes… we had eggs but not omelettes“, now popular and everyday.

When any cuisine is taken to another country it changes“, he states, moving on to talk about Indian food here in the UK.

No one has the right to say our Indian food in the UK is a bastardisation; this is how we like it!” Smiling to soften the message, he hammers the point home, “no one comes to my house and tells me what I should eat!

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He tells us about how he cooks Indian food in the UK. Presenting his own modern Indian cuisine, he uses local ingredients as far as possible, and follows the local seasons. “Whatever comes, it’s on our menu, that’s how it is“, he says, making it all sound so simple.

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We are talking in the kitchen of Benares in London’s Mayfair, Atul Kochhar’s Michelin starred Indian restaurant which opened nearly 10 years ago and has been lauded ever since.

As he talks, Kochhar demonstrates a couple of dishes from his current seasonal menu – a tandoori scallop served over a lentil salad and crispy soft shell crab with crab salad and saffron mayonnaise.

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Working quickly, he talks us through each step, with tips along the way.

Ginger garlic paste is always made fresh; he says of the supermarket ready made pastes that he doesn’t know what they might add to keep them fresh. He uses mustard oil in his cooking, though it’s often labelled for external use only when sold in the UK. For those who prefer not to use it, he advises substituting Dijon mustard or any good mustard paste.

For his lentil salad, he likes a mix of channa dal and urad dal. He laughs when he tells us that he always salts the lentils during cooking, as many European chefs recommend against this, insisting the lentils will become tough. “In India, we would never cook them without salt as lentils pick up salt in cooking only“. I can attest that his lentils certainly aren’t tough and are perfectly seasoned.

Like my mum’s, his tandoori marinades are never bright red. When tandoori meats first gained popularity in the UK, kashmiri chillies, which give a distinctive red colour, were easy to get. Now they are more expensive, they are used more rarely, and many UK Indian restaurants took to adding cochineal to achieve the expected red colour. He doesn’t, of course! As he mixes the marinade he explains that, since he’s applying it to fish, 10 minutes will be plenty of time, though meat needs longer.

Moving on to the soft shell crab results in a discussion on the crabs themselves. Whilst species of crabs that are known as soft shell species are not found in UK waters, our local species are soft enough to be cooked in the same way if we happen to catch them within two weeks of them moulting their shells. Otherwise, it’s a case of buying the soft shell breeds from the Far East or Maryland, USA. He tells us, with some wonder in his voice, about a recent visit to a fish market, where he picked up a lobster that had just shed its shell: “It’s skin was really squeaky, slimy.” Soft shell lobster, anyone?

Listing the spices as he adds them to one of the elements of the dish, I ask about chaat masala. He laughs coyly; “Two things I don’t like to discuss – recipes for chaat masala and garam masala – I could start world war three!

As each dish is finished, spoons at the ready we dive in. Amidst appreciative noises, our small group quickly polishes off each dish, throwing extra questions in Kochhar’s direction as we do. We are intrigued by the tiny yellow fruits served with the crab; they are the size and shape of cherries, but we’re amazed to learn they are crab apples, preserved whole to be used as a delicious garnish for this dish.

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Tamazzo (rose, gin and champagne) on arrival, watching the kitchen through the glass window of the chef’s table

We reluctantly leave the kitchen to enjoy dinner from the a la carte menu. Our group is slightly larger than planned, so we eat in the main dining room, instead of the chef’s table as originally intended. A shame, as the view through the large glass window is compelling viewing.

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Mini poppadoms are served with pineapple, tomato and ginger chutneys.

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The amuse bouche is a Mango Pana, usually a drink but here served as a thicker liquid. It’s made with raw green mango, cumin and jaggery, and had crunchy toasted peanuts sprinkled on top. Tart, sweet, crunchy, this is an intriguing couple of mouthfuls.

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For my starter, I choose the Tandoori Ratan, featuring a fennel lamb chop, a chicken seekh kebab and a basil king prawn. All beautifully cooked, with well balanced flavours, soft in texture and a nice selection, served together.

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Dithering over the mains, I finally settle on the Konju Moilee. What arrives is a generous serving of Scottish lobster over okra and mango, with a jug of rich moilee sauce and a side dish of lemon couscous. With the exception of the couscous, I love all of it, even the okra which I’m not usually so keen on. The flavours in the coconut-based sauce are wonderful, robust and yet don’t overpower the lobster.

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A selection of sides are ordered for the table; all are good. Of special note are the Palak Paneer, Aloo Jeera, yellow dal, red dal and several different breads.

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For my dessert, I can’t resist the Chocolate Peanut Butter Tube, Jaggery Cake, Cumin Marshmallow and Sugar Cane Ice-Cream. More than the other courses, this really shows Kochhar’s commitment to bringing modern techniques and ideas to his cooking, combining Indian flavours and ingredients with European ones. I love the peanut butter filling, though the chocolate tube shell is a little hard to break into. Likewise, the jaggery cake I find a little tough. I do enjoy the cumin marshmallow, weird though it is and like the oreo cookie “soil” and sugar cane ice-cream.

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Others in the group are just as impressed with their choices which include the Chicken Tikka Pie, beautifully presented with its topping of black and white sesame seeds, Mackerel Ki Kathi, mackerel cooked Kolkata style and served on a crispy naan bread with peppers and egg, Tawa Gosht Aur Suhnari Kahsta, a lamb dish served with purple potatoes so delicious they almost bring tears to the eyes of the dish’s owner and Samudri Khazana Do Pyazaa, a seafood dish featuring king prawns almost as large as the lobsters!

Service, as you’d expect in a restaurant of this calibre, is knowledgeable and helpful and the pace of the meal well judged. Unlike some other high-end restaurants, I’m glad we are not constrained by the kind of hushed atmosphere that stifles friendly chatter at the table, both ours and many others.

 

Kavey Eats attended the cookery workshop and meal as a guest of Atul Kochhar and Benares restaurant.

Benares on Urbanspoon

 

The welcome at the Riverford Organic Farms Field Kitchen is warm.

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Guests are shown to their spot at large communal tables serried beneath a vast curving roof. Huge windows let in plenty of light during our June lunch-time visit. The menu is no-choice, served family style at a fixed time, so there’s a real sense of buzz as everyone arrives and waits eagerly for service to begin.

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Whether you come for lunch or dinner, the menu is designed to show off the organic vegetables for which Riverford is known. There is one meat dish, but amongst the five colourful vegetable dishes, it’s simply one more taste and texture rather than the star of the show, as is more often the case elsewhere.

This is, of course, by design, as head chef Rob Andrew tells us during an interview before lunch.

Rob joined Riverford in 2010 to head up the Travelling Field Kitchen, which toured the UK with its giant yurt, bringing some of the Devon Field Kitchen experience to diners further afield. When former Riverford head chef Jane Baxter left the team earlier this year (to work with Henry Dimbleby on Leon’s next cookbook) Rob stepped into the head chef role in the Wash Farm Field Kitchen.

From the beginning, Riverford Customer Service received many calls from customers seeking advice on what to do with some of the less familiar items they found in their boxes plus fresh ideas for the more prosaic contents. The Field Kitchen started a a way of showing people what they could do to make the most of their produce; it also lead to the vegetable cookery books written by Jane Baxter and Riverford’s owner Guy Watson.

Today, that’s still how they work, creating menus based on the contents of the current boxes. Rob explains that the farm team deliver pre-pick test boxes about a week ahead, and the kitchen team use these to trial and develop the dishes they’ll serve the following week. He admits that the main farm teams refer to his gang as “fridge rats” as they’re always heading over to the stores to see what they can find to take back to the kitchen and experiment with.

The Kitchen is located on Wash Farm, the original home of Riverford. Since then, the company has purchased additional farms in the area to meet demand from a growing customer base. It has also forged partnerships to create the South Devon Organic Producers (SDOP) cooperative, a group of farmers who’ve converted some of all of their lands to grow organic produce to be sold by Riverford. Riverford have also purchased farms in France, to better cover the hungry gap when our local weather and lack of light makes growing hard work. They do import some produce from Spain, bringing it over by road rather than air, and can pass by their farms in France on the same route.

The meat and dairy is also sourced locally, from farms within a handful of miles of the Field Kitchen.

And the beers and soft drinks on offer are, of course, from local producers.

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On the day of our visit, lunch is a a dish of slow cooked lamb over griddled leeks and butter beans, carrots with mustard and honey, spring greens with red onion and raisins, roasted beetroot with pistachio, orange and feta cheese, new potatoes with rosemary, fresh garlic and lemon, and the most fabulous salad of chargrilled courgettes, asparagus, broad bean and little gem salad. For vegetarians, the lamb is substituted with roasted red peppers stuffed with tomatoes, garlic, basil and ricotta.

The chargrilled courgettes, asparagus, broad bean and little gem salad is by far and away my favourite dish and I would happily feast on this dish alone and be completely satisfied.

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After lunch, Rob takes us outside to show us a row of cardoon plants (also known as artichoke whistles), a passion of owner Guy Watson, along with globe artichokes, which we spot in a nearby field. Apparently, cardoon needs to be forced like rhubarb, so that it grows thin, tender stalks rather than heavy wooden ones. The bitterness is not to everyone’s taste.

Another of Guy’s enthusiasms has made it into both boxes and the kitchen. During a brief chat with Guy during lunch, he tells us that whilst former head chef Jane Baxter wasn’t such a fan, Rob is happy to use broad bean tops, which are picked anyway, when the farmers thin out the broad beans. Like pea shoots, the flavour is reminiscent of the beans themselves. A good tip for those of us harvesting our own crops from gardens and allotments.

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Whilst the savoury dishes are brought to the table, dessert is served at the kitchen end of the room, with tables invited to go up in turn and choose a dessert from the array on offer. Torn between pavlovas, lemon tart, cheesecakes, chocolate cakes and sticky toffee pudding, it’s not an easy choice, but again, all of the ones we try within our group are deemed absolutely excellent.

For £19.90 per person (£9.95 for children aged 3 – 12) you’ll enjoy a substantial, delicious and inspiring meal.

In the evenings, the price tag of £26.50 / £13.25 includes a starter as well as the main and dessert we had for lunch.

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After lunch, we were kindly given a private tour around the farm by Penny Hemming, an experienced horticulturalist who now cultivates organic cut flowers and runs farm tours for Riverford. She also planted up the beautiful culinary and medicinal herb garden just outside the Field Kitchen and she writes their gardening blog, here.

Because of the time of year, and also the ease of access to different parts of the farm, our visit was heavy on the polytunnels, though Penny explained that only 2% of what they produce is grown under cover. It was a fascinating tour, lead by a passionate and witty guide, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. We finished with a visit to the Farm Shop, full of tempting goodies.

 

Our visit to Riverford was part of a week-long South West Tour courtesy of The Food Travel Company (and Riverford Organic Farms). They are a new company offering specialist trips for food (and drink) lovers, with group departures and customised itineraries available. Our trip included a night near Buckfastliegh, four nights in Cornwall and another night in Bristol on the way home. I’ll be posting about several more of our experiences in coming weeks.

 

I’ve always been happy in my North London suburban neighbourhood. But The Victoria in East Sheen is one of those places that seriously makes me dream about moving South.

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This cosy neighbourhood pub and restaurant is located in an incredible peaceful suburban neighbourhood just a couple of minutes’ walk from Richmond Park. The exterior probably hasn’t changed much since it was built in the mid 19th century.

There’s a car park at the back, and plenty of street parking on the road, but I’m guessing most of the customers are locals, quietly giggling to themselves in glee at their bloody good fortune.

The current incarnation was taken on by restaurateur Gregg Bellamy and chef Paul Merrett in 2008 and the pair have created a gastropub with a warm welcome and an appealing food and drink menu.

Paul is a top level chef with an impressive CV. He trained under Gary Rhodes at The Greenhouse and Peter Kromberg at Le Soufflé. He gained an excellent reputation for his cooking at the Meridien Hotel in Piccadilly. Whilst at the Interlude, he was awarded his first Michelin star. After that he returned to The Greenhouse, where he earned another Michelin star.

In our video interview (below), Paul tells us that, like many young and talented chefs, there was a time when cooking that style of food and winning Michelin stars was all he wanted. But after he settled down and had children, his goals in life changed. After helping launch Fulham gastropub The Farm, he yearned for a gastropub of his own. Before finding The Victoria, Paul took some time out to take on an allotment and he wrote about his experiences in his book, Using The Plot: Tales of an Allotment Chef.

Paul also co-wrote Economy Gastronomy: Eat Better and Spend Less with friend Allegra McEvedy.

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Much of the Victoria is set up as a traditional pub. All are welcome, including families with children and locals with pet dogs. In the conservatory at one side is a slightly more formal dining space, though still relaxed and friendly with no stiff upper lips in sight.

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Paul is committed to sourcing ethically and the back of the menu provides information about some of the pub’s suppliers.

Several of the menu starters appealed, as did the day’s special which Paul told us about earlier in the evening. When I asked our waiter whether he’d choose the Manouri cheese starter or the rabbit special, he immediately suggested we try the special as an extra course between starters and mains. You can imagine that this went down quite well with me!

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I was very happy with my choice of Serrano ham with pan fried Manouri cheese, kalamata olives, thyme blossom honey and figs (£9). Having never encountered Manouri cheese before I was somewhat sidelined by the featherlight texture, having expected something more solid like halloumi or feta. But the light and mild cheese worked well with silky, salty Serrano ham, sharp olives, really peppery rocket, sweet ripe figs and that drizzle of honey. The bread deserves a mention too – again it was super light, with wonderful crunch and charred flavour from the toasting.

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Pete’s new season green pea and potato soup, sheep’s cheese crostini (£6) was a summery delight. Struggling to describe it, Pete earnestly told me how “pea-y” it was. I tasted it. “You mean it tastes utterly of really fresh peas?”,  I asked. “Yes, fresh! That’s what I meant!”, he exclaimed. He also made special mention of how well balanced the dish was in textures and tastes; in the soup a few peas were left whole and on top was that thin, light, crisp crostini topped with mild and creamy sheep’s cheese, more peas and micro salad. A simple dish but very, very well executed.

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After our starters came a second shared starter, the daily special: rabbit loin and livers with charred long stem broccoli and morel mushrooms (£7). This is one of the best dishes I’ve eaten in the last few years. So simple and yet, once again, every element in perfect balance. The loin was full of flavour and not at all tough, as rabbit can be when not cooked well. The livers, much larger than I imagined a rabbit’s to be, were like calves liver, and again, just right. Paul had described earlier how he’d be charring the broccoli and indeed, it worked beautifully – like vegetables cooked on the barbeque, the charring gave an additional flavour dimension. The generous helping of morel mushrooms were their usual familiar spongy texture, woody meaty in taste. Underneath all, a buttery chargrilled slice of toast. Over the top, oily meat juices. And the whole lot made to look more beautiful by vivid purple potato crisps. An absolutely exceptional dish!

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Pete’s main of oak smoked trout risotto, new season peas and broadbeans, poached eggs and pea shoots (£13) was beautifully colourful, even more so when he broke open the Clarence Court egg and it’s orange yolk spilled out into the risotto. Every element of the dish contributed to flavours and textures, and again, everything was in perfect harmony. Superbly tasty and satisfying.

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My 28 day aged 7 ox South Devon rib eye steak with thrice cooked chips & béarnaise sauce (£18) was, as I expected by this point in our meal, very good. Great meat, cooked as requested; enormous and fabulous triple cooked chips and a spot-on béarnaise.

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I loved that Pete’s white chocolate panna cotta with English strawberries and shortbread (£5.50) was served in a Bonne Maman jar; much cuter than the contrived efforts of places that buy in brand new jam jars in which to serve drinks, all pristine and identical, rather than the mixed bag of genuinely recycled used ones. The panna cotta was soft and creamy, though the white chocolate was a little understated. The strawberries hadn’t been oversweetened but were at just the right stage of sweet and tart. The shortbread was very short and crumbly.

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My pecan and walnut baklava with roasted plums and honey ice cream (£5.50) was probably my least favourite dish of the meal. The flavours of the baklava were good, but the filo was chewy and difficult to cut, rather than the light, crunchy texture it should have been. The plums were tart, so tart they caused my jaw muscles to tighten painfully against the acid and I left them uneaten. I wasn’t able to detect any honey flavour within the ice cream; though there were pretty lines drizzled over the top, they didn’t linger on the taste buds.

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Coffee was served strong, and was good quality.

With the exception of my dessert, what struck us most strongly about our meal was the impressive balance Paul achieved in each dish, not just in terms of flavours but textures and colours too. Combined with a lovely pub in which to enjoy a drink before and after dinner, a warm welcome and good service from staff and very reasonable prices, you can see why I wish we had a place just like this as our local.

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After dinner, Pete and I spent the night in one of The Victoria’s 7 bedrooms.

All are doubles, but 2 can be set up as twin / family rooms and all are ensuite. Prices start at £120 for single occupancy and £130 for double, with additional charges for cots and campbeds.

Our bed was extremely comfortable, with a new, good quality mattress. Instead of wasting space on a large wardrobe or chest of drawers, a clever shelf with hangers beneath was perfectly adequate and attractive too. I also appreciated the tea and coffee making facilities on a tray on the desk.

Our bathroom, with shower but no bath, was a little small though servicable. An extra light above the shower cubicle would be welcome, as I found it a little dark. I’d also appreciate a night light that could be left on during the night.

Best of all was the quiet – even with our window open to let in a cooling breeze, we were amazed at how silent the neighbourhood was during the night and into the morning. Much quieter than our suburban home address!

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Room rates include a continental breakfast which is self service from a table laden with cereal, fruit, pastries, yoghurts and juices. A basket of bread sits by a toaster on the side board and coffee and tea are ordered on arrival.

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We opted for two choices from the cooked breakfast menu. My eggs benedict royale (£7.50), had decadent slices of smoked salmon, poached Clarence Court eggs and another beautifully judged sauce in the Hollandaise. Pete’s croque madame (£6.50) might better be described as a ham and cheese grilled sandwich made from thick slices of the same lovely bread we enjoyed before our starters came out the previous evening. In a now familiar refrain, Pete commented admiringly on the perfect balance between the ham, cheese, egg and thick bread fried in butter.

 

The Victoria is a 15 minute walk from Mortlake train station, from which trains to Waterloo take 25 minutes. This is also a great place to stay for London visitors with a car, as parking is free and there are several spaces in the car park behind, and free parking on the street too.

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Interview with Paul Merrett

Kavey Eats was a guest of The Victoria.

 

I’ve been interviewed by Zagat on their blog.

Read my interview and restaurant picks here.

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Just over two years ago, I first met Katie Christoffers, just as she was planning the launch of her new business, Matcha Chocolat. I loved her gutsy packaging, her delicious tea-inspired chocolates, and her perfectionist attention to detail.

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Yesterday, March 1st, was the 2nd anniversary for Matcha Chocolat. In just two years, Katie’s chocolates have won a slew of golds in the Great Taste Awards and a silver in the Academy of Chocolate ones.

 

I caught up with Katie (and her chocolates) to find out what’s been happening:

Question: Last time we met, you were a couple of months out from launching Matcha Chocolat, full of nerves about what people would think of your chocolates, whether they would sell well, and whether your transition from biology researcher to self-taught chocolatier would prove successful. Now you are approaching your second anniversary, how would you sum up your first two years?

Immensely challenging is what comes to mind first. It’s been a good two years though. I’ve learned so much and it’s been personally very rewarding for me to have taken on the task of running an artisan chocolate business, especially as I don’t have a formal background in chocolate making. As you mention I trained as a scientist and actually now that I think about it, it’s quite fitting to say that the past two years as well as the lead up to launching Matcha Chocolat have been my most enjoyable and fruitful experiment to date. From creating my method for making artisan chocolates, to developing the idea for my business, to launching… and now two years in it’s been a real period of exploration and creativity and I hope that some of that excitement and passion has been translated through in the chocolates that I make.

Question: What have the greatest challenges been for you?

As I mentioned, the feeling I’ve carried with me across the last two years has certainly been one of excitement. It’s been a real change of course for my life to take up artisan chocolate making. The other side of the coin of taking up a new endeavour is, of course, finding your way through an entirely novel set of challenges.

Overall I would say that the greatest challenge for me, and I think this is the same for a lot of small business owners, is that you have to take on a wide variety of roles. For me that involves everything from making chocolates on a daily basis, packaging and posting them, to accounting, website administration, product development, PR, blogging, writing newsletters, and keeping up to date via Twitter and Facebook. There’s no one task that stands out as particularly challenging, it’s just finding the time for them all!

Question: And what about the highlights? I’m guessing that the awards from Great Taste and The Academy of Chocolate must be in there, am I right? And what else?

The awards were really exciting of course! For me though, it’s probably been seeing the business grow over the last two years that has been the highlight. I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I launched, so to see it develop has been really exciting. It’s also been amazing getting to know so many people, from customers, to food bloggers, and to be able to share my passion for artisan chocolates.

Question: What are your plans for the coming year? I know you’ll be focusing on upcoming dates in the calendar such as mothers day and Easter, but do you have any broader game plans for taking the business forward?

I’ve created new selections for Mother’s day, Easter as well as Father’s day, so I will be busy making chocolates for holidays for most of the beginning of this year. After that, a lot of my time will be taken up with planning for Christmas. One thing that’s become apparent to me during these first two years is just how seasonal a chocolatier’s work is. The holidays are a flurry of activity but it can go a bit quiet for an online shop like mine during periods such as the summer, so it’s worth putting a lot of effort into planning for the holidays. Product development is high on my agenda as well as getting new photographs together for next Christmas’s selection.

Question: Of all your chocolates, classic and new, which is your personal favourite?

Well, I have to admit I’m a bit of a morning person and I have this habit I like to call ‘pre-breakfast chocolate’. I get up early in the morning and tip toe off to the kitchen to enjoy 3 or 4 chocolates in the peace and quiet of the early morning hours.

Your palette is so much more sensitive in the morning so I really look forward to the fist chocolates of the day and there are certainly a few chocolates that I find myself reaching for time and time again. In no particular order I would say my the top four on my list, for now at least, are Vietnamese Cinnamon, Matcha & Pistachio Truffle, Masala Chai Caramel, and Jasmine Pearls.

Question: What do you think is the next trend in artisan chocolate making?

I think people are much more open to creative pairings with chocolate and have even come to expect that there might be one or more challenger flavours found in a box of proper artisan chocolates. So overall I would say that innovative flavour combinations have become a familiar and established trend. With that in mind, particular flavours stand out. For instance over the past few years flavours like chilli, bacon, and sea salt, have emerged as innovative flavours that went on to became trendy and then eventually quite commonplace.

Yet, beyond these creative and unusual flavour combinations, I would say another trend that has been evolving within the world of fine chocolate is the exploration of food cultures through the medium of artisan chocolates. Having myself launched an artisan chocolate company inspired by the love of pairing Japanese ingredients, such as matcha tea with chocolate; I’ve been watching with keen interest the growing popularity of Japanese inspired flavours. Wasabi has clearly become a trendy flavour in the savoury market. Yet, I think the interest in Japanese ingredients, as well as Japanese design and aesthetic have been taken further in the world of fine chocolate.

Chocolate is such an amazing medium to work with and can accommodate so many flavours. So certainly from my perspective it’s the ideal medium to explore a diverse range of food cultures in new and inventive ways. In the future I presume that people will continue to push the boundaries out with innovative flavour combinations, but I think there will also be more focused and in depth explorations of specific countries’ cuisine and aesthetic as has been seen with the growing trend in Japanese inspired chocolates.

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And now, a review of Katie’s current mixed collection:

Chestnut & Japanese Whisky

This chocolate uses a single origin chocolate from São Tomé, contains Yamazaki 10 year old single malt whisky and chestnut puree and is topped with toasted sesame seeds. It’s a delicious chocolate with a clear alcoholic note, but for me, neither the chestnut nor whisky flavours come through clearly enough.

Earl Grey

This is what I consider to be a classic Matcha Chocolat product and I absolutely love it! There’s a fabulously strong kick of black tea taste with a lovely hint of bergamot, and the ganache is wonderfully smooth, as are all of Katie’s fillings. This is a winner!

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Masala Chai Caramel

Another Matcha Chocolat classic, bringing the flavours of masala chai to chocolate, this is not only beautiful, with the blue and white swirls on a dome of dark chocolate, but also really tasty. The shell is dark but sweet, with a satisfying solidity and crack as one bites through. The caramel filling is silky and strongly flavoured with the chai spices. I love the hint of salt too.

Rosemary, Raisin & Walnut

This dark chocolate combines fresh rosemary, minced raisins and a little walnut oil – a classic in savoury dishes, but not something I’ve tried before in chocolate form. I can’t detect the walnut but I do love the robust flavour punch of the rosemary and raisins. My only negative about this chocolate is the strangely slimy texture of the rosemary leaves.

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Matcha & Pistachio

The first time I tried one of Katie’s matcha chocolates, I didn’t think the matcha taste came through strongly enough. But this time, it’s loud and clear and absolutely delicious, and is such a perfect combination with its colour-matched pistachio. The tea comes through first, and then the pistachio on the finish. And the crunchy topping is a delightful contrast against the smooth filling. This is another exceptional chocolate!

Yuzu

Yuzu, an Asian citrus fruit with a distinct taste and aroma, is an ingredient that’s been growing in popularity in the West over the last decade. Katie uses it to great effect here, combining pureed fruit with dark chocolate to create a lovely balance between the bitter sweet chocolate and the refreshing zing of citrus. Unlike the more familiar orange, lime or lemon citrus that I’m more used to, this reminds me (oddly but pleasantly) of childhood sweets such as Opal Fruits and Refreshers!

Jasmine Pearls

This is a magnificent chocolate! Katie’s talent lies in bringing the taste of both tea and jasmine to the forefront, and this is absolutely like drinking a cup of fragrant, high-quality, jasmine pearls tea and having a nibble of delicious chocolate, between sips. I love this and could happily eat a box full!

Cardamom & Banana

Cardamom and banana are two of my favourite ingredients, so I was very excited about this chocolate! The cardamom was wonderfully heady, aromatic and tasty as I expected. However, try as I might I just couldn’t detect the banana at all. I’m sure the pureed fruit gave its texture to the filling, but for me, the taste wasn’t there. I liked this chocolate, because of the cardamom, but had it also given me banana, I’m sure it would have been another favourite.

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This was a lovely box of chocolates – beautiful to look at, intriguing flavour combinations, great textures and a pleasure to taste.

My three favourites are all classic Matcha Chocolat tea chocolates; they just blew my taste buds away!

 

Win

Katie has kindly offered a Matcha Chocolat Mixed Selection box to one lucky reader of Kavey Eats.

How to enter

You can enter the competition in 2 ways.

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  • The winner will be notified by email or twitter. If no response is received by the end of Tuesday 13 March, the prize will be forfeit and a new winner will be picked and contacted.

*If you don’t have a secondary email address already and are nervous about sharing your main email address on the internet, why not set up a new free email account on hotmail, gmail or yahoo, that you can use to enter competitions like this?

Kavey Eats received a complimentary sample box from Matcha Chocolat.

 

This competition is closed. Congratulations to winner goodfoodetc.

Jun 232011
 

We had a marvellous fortnight in Lebanon, as will already be clear from my recent posts about the overall trip and our day with Abu Kassem. After our Taste Lebanon tour was over, Pete and I stayed on in Beirut for 3 extra days, basing ourselves at The Phoenicia hotel, part of the InterContintental group.

About The Phoenicia

It was during Lebanon’s golden era in the 1950s and ’60s that Lebanese businessman Najib Salha decided to build a world class hotel on the shores of Beirut. With a group of like-minded investors, he founded La Société des Grands Hotels du Liban and invited American architect Edward Durell Stone to design his dream hotel.

The Phoenicia InterContinental opened its doors 8 years later in 1961.

It immediately became a firm favourite with the rich and famous jet set and was party central for royalty, world leaders, celebrities, businessmen not to mention wealthy Lebanese.

After years of closure due to the war, La Société des Grands Hotels du Liban decided to rebuild Beirut’s grand dame. After extensive refurbishment and extensions, it reopened in 2000.

In its new incarnation, it offers 446 rooms and suites plus a residential complex with serviced apartments. As well as its own range of restaurants, the larger complex also provides a home to a number of other stores and restaurants including the Beirut outpost of Gaucho.

This year The Phoenicia celebrates 50 years since its original opening.

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Our Room

Invited for a review visit, we were allocated a Club InterContinental room which comes with its own check-in and check-out area on the 6th floor, a club lounge area in which complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea and an evening finger food buffet are served during the day, access to a business centre and library plus use of the meeting room if required, WiFi in the room and public spaces (and high speed internet in the room), complimentary limousine transfers (though these only seem to be offered for pick up from the airport and not drop off back to it), a butler service to help with in-room or concierge needs and a complimentary 15 minute neck massage, plus discount on any further spa treatments.

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Our room was lovely and spacious. The king size bed was comfortable, a usable desk working area with internet, TV and mini bar fridge, wardrobe space plus a handy storage for suitcases and bags, so they didn’t clutter up the room. I would have preferred a two-seater sofa or two arm chairs to the chaise-longue but that’s just me.

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I liked our little balcony, with side views of the marina and coast. The windows were well sound-proofed against the constant buzz of traffic below.

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And the bathroom was super lovely, with a large walk-in shower closet, a separate bath, gorgeous L’Occitane toiletries and a separate toilet area.

What we liked about our room is that it was a space we were happy to relax in, and felt positive about coming back to during the day and for the night. You might think this is a no-brainer but, believe me, our first night in Lebanon (after which we moved quick sharpish) made it strikingly clear that this is not always the case!

The only negative with our room was the number of times we were interrupted for house keeping services, turn down service and then, the one that really annoyed, a manager check that the turn down service had been provided or offered. This was not just for us because we were on a review visit, but repeated along the length of the club rooms corridor, I think. I felt like responding that if they didn’t trust their staff to perform the duties they were paid for, they should employ people they did!

Public Spaces

 

As expected from a hotel of this stature, public spaces are enormous and sumptuously decorated, though they’ve been refurbished lately with a lighter, more modern touch, introducing sleeker silver check in desks, purples and greys in carpets and furnishings and less of the heavy gold and red that we were told used to be prevalent. At the same time, with all the gleaming marble, one doesn’t forget one’s in a traditional luxury hotel!

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Outdoors is an attractive pool area with plenty of greenery, day beds, seating areas and the Amethyste bar area. We tried to enjoy a drink here one evening but a wedding party in a nearby building had their music turned up outrageously loud, not the fault of The Phoenicia. What made it worse was the hotel bar’s insistence on keeping their own loud music switched on – the clash between the two was unbearable and we gave up and retreated indoors to the Cascade lobby lounge. A shame as the seating areas around the pool are delightful; one of my favourite spaces in the hotel.

We didn’t make it into the outdoor pool during our May visit, as the weather wasn’t quite warm enough.

Spa Pool

fromweb phoenicia pool
located via Google image search, no photographer information found

Instead we used the indoor pool within the spa area. This has been well designed. The separate mens’ and womens’ changing areas each have steam rooms and showers. A large shared jacuzzi is in the open area next to the pool. The pool has high ceilings and is just big enough to do lengths if you want to exercise a little. (There is a gym nearby, for those who really want to work out; I walked past without giving it a second glance). I particularly loved looking out while I was floating in the pool, through immense glass windows, onto a residential scene that summed up Beirut – a number of beautifully refurbished buildings and one windowless shell, pockmarked by sniper fire and bombs.

Spa Treatments

Next to the indoor pool and changing rooms is the spa reception, and, up on a mezzanine floor, the treatment rooms. We booked a massage each, Pete opting for a 50 minute hour Ayurvedic Abhyanga massage and me for an 80 minute therapeutic deep tissue massage. Pete couldn’t work out why the treatment was classified as Ayurvedic, since it had no Ayurvedic aspects to it. At all. None. Moreover, it was an average massage at best. Not bad per se, but not good.

Mine was a bit of a disaster. Firstly, my therapist sulked when I didn’t take him up on his determined offer to split my treatment time between massage and therapist-directed (power) jet shower. This came up twice more during the massage itself, too. Then, we started the treatment to the thunder of drilling work, the treatment room clearly just on the other side of the wall from the construction work on Mosaic restaurant. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I could feel the vibrations reverberating through my head. My therapist quickly worked out this wasn’t going to work and left me lying there as he went off, for a very long time indeed, to find an alternative. Of course, the spa were not to blame, having not known about it, but some internal communications in advance would have allowed the spa to avoid accepting bookings for those treatment rooms during the noisiest works. Eventually, he returned and said we’d use a free bedroom within the hotel, where a mobile massage table had been set up. I was not very comfortable following him through the hotel in a too-small bathrobe, but eventually we got into the room, only to find it didn’t have a massage table. Off he went again to get the key for the correct room, and then we had to wait again for the massage oils and towels to be delivered. The massage itself, sorry to say, was also not very good, with the therapist refusing to heed my requests about where on my body to focus his time, or to work more gently. Nor did it help that he sat down for so much of it, meaning he didn’t get a decent angle with which to reach my back muscles. He stopped to grab himself a drink from the minibar in the middle too! Near the end, he wanted to work on my neck. Immediately, I told him that I’ve had some issues with my neck, something I’d mentioned during our initial discussion, and to go very gently indeed. He ignored me once again, actually strong arming my resistance away, insisting he knew best. I’m just lucky he didn’t do any damage and I was not a happy bunny. Five minutes before the end of our allotted time, the spa reception called the room to check whether he’d finished; surely better to wait until he called them than risk interrupting the client’s treatment. And to cap it all, he then insisted on asking me in person, what I’d thought of the treatment. Alone in a bedroom with a therapist who had delivered a bullying treatment, I was too timid to say anything other than “time will tell” before escaping as quickly as I could and feeding back in detail to management shortly afterwards.

Offered a replacement massage, I was reluctant but agreed to give it ago. I was assigned to Imad who took genuine time to check my medical details and requirements, and gave me, in complete contrast, one of the best massages I’d had in my life, though marred a little by the bruising left from the first treatment. With his excellent massage training, not to mention diploma in osteopathy and further training in reflexology, Imad was a great therapist and he fixed a lot of the pain caused the previous day and helped with some of the aches I’d hoped to heal in the first place. He is one of the best therapists I’ve ever encountered, anywhere.

Were all the therapists at The Phoenicia of the same calibre, I would not hesitate to recommend that you book a treatment here. But our 1 out of 3 hit rate means I’m loathe to do so; it’s a hit and miss affair and the hotel needs to invest a lot more effort into hiring and training better therapists.

Dining

The hotel offers a number of dining options from casual to formal.

I met with the hotel’s executive chef Jacques Rossel and with Rabih Fouany, Eau de Vie’s head chef, ahead of our evening meal there. Here’s an interview.

 

Eau de Vie

The Eau de Vie is The Phoenicia’s flagship restaurant, situated on the eighth floor, with views out over the sea and the city and offering French and Mediterranean cuisine. It’s recently been refurbished and we all found it a calming space, in muted colours and simple, elegant lines. Window tables were each separated by chiffon curtained partition walls, giving welcome privacy. Live music was pleasant, but not too loud to preclude conversation. Service was helpful, friendly but not overly obsequious.

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Foie gras was served in a generous slice though more brioche would not have gone amiss; rich and unctuous, as it should be.

Caesar salad was brought on a large trolley and assembled in front of the diner, with the dressing made fresh. The only question asked was whether the diner wanted anchovies and, disappointingly, these were not crushed and mixed into the dressing. The romaine leaves were very fresh and sweet, but the dressing was deemed so-so.

Cod croquettes were given the thumbs up.

The tomato tart with lobster salad was light and sweet from the small tomatoes. The lobster had a nice texture but didn’t have much flavour.

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The wagyu burger was deemed excellent – cooked pink inside, as agreed on ordering, and decent moist meat.

Chicken chasseur was rich with the flavour of mushrooms and bacon in a thick sauce, and served without fussiness, befitting the nature of the dish.

I had been about to order a regular steak but was encouraged to try the wagyu version instead. All the beef, wagyu and regular, was from Australia, by the way. I gave in to the upsell and was pleasantly surprised. My steak had great flavour but was also far more tender than I would normally have expected from the cut (though which cut has slipped my mind, and I failed to note it down).

The stand out dish of the meal was seabass with mushroom sauce. The seabass was absolutely superbly cooked, if I’m pressing this point, it’s because it really was a perfect balance between firm, moist and tender. And, to our surprise, the robust and rich marsala mushroom sauce did not overwhelm the fish, the flavour of which came through very clearly. Vegetables were simple and cooked with a light touch. The odd pipette of extra sauce stuck into the croquette at a jaunty angle was an odd touch, an out of place nod to molecular cuisine, perhaps.

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An assiette of chocolate desserts was decent, with mousses, a chocolate lychee shot and a macaron.

A chocolate praline (not pictured) was excellent, with great flavours and just the right crunchy texture.

The crème brûlée trio – vanilla, raspberry and sumac – was the winner for this course. Pete is very fussy about the texture of the crème custard and gave it top marks. Both the vanilla and the raspberry flavours were tasty. But, oh my, that sumac one was delicious, imparting a refreshing citrus flavour to the custard. I hadn’t thought it would work but everyone tried and really liked it.

With our meal we enjoyed a Ksara rosé Gris de Gris before and with the starters. With our mains, the restaurant General Manager, Nicki, recommended a Massaya red which she described as fruity and full but which would still work with the fish dish as well as the meat ones. She was right, the three red drinkers agreed!

After our meal we enjoyed a digestif each – two chose whiskies from the extensive whisky bar menu and two of us had a glass of dessert wine.

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Coffees and teas came with a visit from the petits fours trolley, which is fun to choose from.

Our meal was on the house, but the bill would have been approximately $470 between four of us. That said, the red wine selected for us cost more than what we’d have selected on our own and both Pete and I were encouraged to have wagyu burgers and steak rather than regular. And we were invited to try the whisky bar too. You could dine for a fair bit less here, but you are still paying a premium for the view, the exclusive environment, the posh hotel level of service and the location within an expensive hotel.

That said, we did have a very enjoyable evening.

Caffe Mondo

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At the other end of the scale is Caffe Mondo, a casual Italian eatery that Bethany told us was a favourite hang out during her student days. The prices here were on par with many lower to middle range Beirut restaurants and we thought it great value and tasty too.

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Most of the starters were intended for one but Pete’s caprese di bufala al pesto was enormous, easily enough for two and priced at similar point to my starter, labelled as for two. It was lovely good with moist, flavoursome mozzarella, decent tomatoes and a pleasant but not overpowering pesto.

I really really fancied the deep fried calamari rings (described on the menu as for two people) so ordered it anyway and stuck to my guns in not finishing it, so I’d have room left for my pizza! Fresh squid, a light batter, cooked for just the right amount of time, served hot with two dips, it was just the ticket.

The starters were on the pricey side, ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 Lebanese pounds (1,500 LP = $1).

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Most mains were much more reasonable with pastas costing 12,500 to 19,000 Lebanese pounds and pizzas between 20,000 and 27,500 though fish and meat dishes ranged from 26,000 to a whopping 120,000 for a grilled wagyu sirloin.

The pizza chef worked at a counter open to the restaurant, so we could watch him tossing and stretching the dough, before adding toppings and cooking the pizzas in a proper pizza oven. They were both excellent and as good as my favourites in London and Italy.

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Grazers also be interested in the lunch and dinner buffets which are extensive and varied, and I think priced at around $20. The buffet shelf features an integrated chiller unit that keeps the food cold. I have often found restaurant buffet selections disappointing but I’d have been happy to dine from this one.

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Tiramisu (10,000) was pretty good. But hazelnut pannacotta (also 10,000) was awful, with about 10 times the amount of gelatine required, it was like spooning into solid rubber, and after a couple of bouncy bites, I gave up. A shame, as the flavour was decent.

Other Dining

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Also in the hotel is Wok Wok offering pan Asian cuisine, Amethyste bar offering drinks and bar snacks and the Cascade Lobby Lounge serving drinks and light meals. The hotel’s all day dining restaurant, Mosaic, is currently undergoing major refurbishment, and is scheduled to reopen later in the year.

Service and Ambience

A friend had visited Beirut last year, accompanying her husband who was there on business. She had described The Phoenicia a little impersonal, and said that service (for their large business group) was a bit slow, so I’d been nervous about how we’d find it. To my relief, we genuinely enjoyed our stay, and were treated with courtesy and a helpful attitude by staff throughout the hotel. Of course, with over 400 rooms, there is a vast army of staff, most of whom will interact with any given guest only once, if at all. However, the staff in the Club lounge, who look after a smaller subset of guests, clearly made efforts to remember and interact personally with all their customers.

Certainly, The Phoenicia is a more traditional style of hotel than we naturally gravitate towards, but it’s attractive, comfortable and offers good service, albeit for a price (see below).

Additionally, my friend had commented on the views from the hotel out over derelict neighbouring buildings, finding them unappealing to look at. But I must confess, I found them a bittersweet reminder of Beirut’s war-ravaged history and often could not tear my eyes away from the contrast between new or refurbished buildings and derelict buildings standing cheek to cheek.

Even the Stop Solidere signs intrigued me, a political protest against state-approved but privately owned building projects that are erasing all trace of Lebanon’s conflict-ridden past. Returning Beirut to its pre-civil war appearance, argue the protestors, amounts to state-sponsored amnesia regarding a period that had such impact on Lebanese lives and culture. I’m not remotely qualified to hold an opinion, but find this debate fascinating, drawn as I am by the history those war-pocked shells evoke.

If you prefer modern style to traditional, my friend recommended the more intimate Le Gray, which has an excellent location in the heart of town, near the new souk shopping district, Place de l’Etoile, Martyrs’ Square and many other sites. The Phoenicia is about a kilometre or so further from these sites, so still well located for both business and tourist visitors.

 

Costs

 

The Phoenicia is not a budget option, by any stretch of the imagination. Standard rooms cost from $400 a night. Our Club rooms cost from $700 a night. (This is very comparable with other high end hotels in Beirut, including Le Gray).

Spa treatments are at the top end of what I’ve come across, even in hotel spas, with Pete’s 50 minute Ayurvedic massage priced at $110, my first (80 minute) massage priced at $133 and the replacement massage priced at $100.

The dining options range from very reasonable to pretty high. (We found eating out in Beirut was more expensive, generally, than we’d expected; on a par with London prices).

Extras are not cheap either; for example, we found the taxi service used by the concierge service was (literally) twice the price of the one we’d been using throughout the week, as recommended in our Taste Lebanon information pack.

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views from the penthouse suite, an incredible and enormous space on the 22nd floor, yours for $9,000 a night…

For all that, you do get what you pay for. The Phoenicia of 2011 still reflects the opulence, tradition and service of i’s jet set hey day and offers what you’d expect from a hotel of its style and calibre.

Beirut is an expensive city, but one I am eager to get back to.

Kavey Eats was a guest of The Phoenicia hotel.

 

As I mentioned before, I’ve been paired with Jamie Theakston to keep an eye on the Talk & Fork category of the Tesco Real Food Challenge. I put some food and cooking questions to him recently and am happy to share my interview with you here!

Do you remember the first thing you cooked? What was it and how old were you?
Chocolate refrigerator cake!! I remember my mum letting me clean the bowl – yum!

With a young family at home, what are your favourite family meals?
The kids are 3 and 2 – they love sausages, pasta, and, oddly olives!! I couldn’t stand Olives when I was younger!!

Do you cook with the kids? If so, what do you love cooking together?
They are still a bit too young, but they love their food, and I’m pretty sure they will grow up to be keen cooks!

What is your ultimate dish when cooking to impress?
I like to cook seasonally – my fave at this time of the year is to zap some mint sauce and peas into a puree in the blender, spread onto griddled sourdough bread, put some Parma ham and asparagus on top, shaved parmesan, soft boiled egg and then glug of decent olive oil – buonissimo!

What kind of music do you like to cook to?
Foo Fighters puts me in the right mood.

Who would be your 5 ideal dinner party guests – alive, dead or fictional?
Billy Connolly
Dorothy Parker
Oscar Wilde
Peter Sellers
Seve Ballesteros

What’s the best veggie dish you’ve ever had?
One of my top restaurants is called Babbo in NY – they do Asparagus ravioli with ricotta and spring onion butter – it’s wonderful…

What is your favourite comfort food?
Burrata – with a little olive oil and aubergines Or try it with honey and oregano.

Have you discovered/ tried any new foods lately, that you’ve really liked or hated?
I went to a gallery opening recently and they served frozen party food – it was terrible!

Ignoring health implications for a moment, if you could eat only one dish for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
Burrata!!

What’s your favourite cuisine cooking at home and what’s your favourite cuisine eating out?
Italian – we are going to Orvieto this summer on holiday, I can’t wait!

You’re based in London – can you recommend your favourite neighbourhood restaurant and your favourite for a special occasion?
My top place to eat in London is Scott’s in London – best razor-clams in town! I live near La Trompette in Chiswick which is said to be very good. Also a friend of mine is opening a pub called the Devonshire very soon – I’m looking forward to eating there!!

Any plans to follow former your former colleague Jane Middlemiss on to Celebrity MasterChef?
I’d love to! It looks a lot of fun!

What’s in your fridge right now?
Asparagus, some left over lamb and some mackerel that needs eating!
Some strawberries (the kids love them).
And a left over pea and bean salad with chilli and goats cheese which I will zap in the blender and eat with the lamb.

What cookery book do you use more than any other?
Nigel Slater is the best – probably ‘The Kitchen Diaries’ or even ‘Real Fast Food’. I also like Jane Grigsons ‘English Food’.

Do you have a food idol? If so who and why?
Keith Floyd – as a TV presenter, his approach was completely unique!

If you could banish one ingredient from the face of the planet, what would it be?
Andouillette sausage – eugh – you won’t find it sold over here for good reason – its pigs colon, and it tastes as bad as it sounds. If you do see it over here, you’ll know the French have invaded…

If you were a cheese, what would you be?
Stilton – bit funny looking from the outside, bit smelly, very English and great with a bottle of Claret!

 

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

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

Read more about this in my original post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Scarlet Hotel‘s restaurant is in the very capable hands of Ben Tunnicliffe, formerly of The Abbey in Penzance, where he earned a Michelin star for his cooking.

Ben gives a frank, informative and sometimes amusing account of his cooking career on the hotel’s website. He also reveals his food philosophy which boils down to making people happy, by focusing on “flavour first and foremost, simplicity second and aesthetics last”, whilst sourcing locally and seasonally as far as possible. This isn’t just lip service – Ben is proud of the relationships he’s built with suppliers, some of whom he’s used for many years. And he won’t compromise on seasonality just to give guests what they might expect. No orange juice for breakfast in winter (when European oranges are not available) – instead a delicious local apple juice.

Having enjoyed a lovely meal in the restaurant on our first night, we very much enjoyed meeting Ben the next day to find out more.

(I should mention that several of the hotel staff were taking part in Movember, in case you’re wondering about that impressive ‘tache!)

The video interview done and dusted, we had some fascinating off the record chitchat (about the industry in general and some of those who work in it in particular) and a tour of the kitchen. And, gosh, Ben’s vast purpose-built kitchen would be an absolute dream for many chefs – it’s several times bigger than even the larger ones I’ve seen in London!

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The sign on the door of Ben’s office, within the kitchen, put a smile on our faces!

The restaurant space is, like all of the hotel, designed to look out to sea. On a winter evening, it’s far too dark to see the beautiful view, but I would be glued to the window during the summer, I’m sure.

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We ate in the hotel restaurant on 2 consecutive nights.

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Friday’s menu

Dinner is priced at £39.50 for 3 courses; the menu doesn’t give a price for 2 courses or just a main on it’s own.

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With each course a wine (available by the glass, 50 cl carafe or full bottle) is recommended. The full wine list is Europe-based (to reduce air miles) and The Scarlet aim to support smaller producers, including a number of organic and bio-dynamic wines.

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The bread basket were a thing of wonder. On the first night, our three breads were white, walnut treacle and cinnamon raisin. The next night the cinnamon raisin was replaced by a fennel and paprika bread. All fresh, beautifully textured and delicious.

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Pete’s spinach velouté with egg yolk ravioli was a welcome shock of colour. The consistency was excellent – not too thick, not too runny and slippery silky smooth. It had a punchy fresh vegetal flavour. And when Pete broke into the raviolo a perfect soft yolk spilled out and added it’s colour and flavour. The pasta wasn’t gossamer thin but thin enough and cooked al dente, which gave a nice bite against the the liquid soup, though it could have done with a few more seconds, ideally.

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My seared scallop, confit pork, hogs pudding, chorizo, caper and raisin was very enjoyable, overall. The scallop was lovely, seared to add a touch of char in flavour and texture, yet still sweet and just cooked within. The pork belly was absolutely spot on with plenty of fat cooked till meltingly soft with a lovely cap of crunchy chewy skin. The hogs pudding (which was presented as a slice of a larger sausage) didn’t do much at all for me; I found it very bland. I’d wondered whether the chorizo, raisins and capers would overwhelm the more delicate pork and scallop but instead, they enhanced and complimented. With the exception of that hogs pudding, I thought this a great appetiser; it made my mouth water for what was to follow.

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Both of us chose the loin and slow braised shoulder of Boccadon farm veal, wild mushrooms, sherry lentils, onions, raisins and thyme. The slow braised shoulder was very, very tender, though we both found the herb flavours too strong. The loin was fabulous – soft, pink and with wonderful flavour. For me, the star of the plate was the selection of wild mushrooms which included girolle (also known as golden chanterelle), black trumpet and cep (also known as porcini). And, oh my god, the rich, sticky, incredibly umami gravy with the merest hint of sweetness was the perfect finish. Usually not a fan of lentils, the sherry lentils went a long way to converting me. Even more surprising, a light cabbage pickle was light and refreshing – not overpowering, as I usually find pickled cabbage. The iron-rich purple sprouting broccoli was just the right vegetable to finish the dish.

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We had a hankering for cheese as well as dessert so ordered an extra course. We liked that our waitress immediately asked whether we’d prefer it before or after dessert, rather than simply imposing a preference on us, as many restaurants do.

The selection of cheeses changes every day. On this day, our three were Keen’s cheddar, Shropshire blue and Epoisses, which made me squeal in delight because I adore Epoisses and resulted in a lovely chat with our waitress who had not tried it before. I warned her it was a fairly strong one but encouraged her to try it for herself! The cheeses were served at room temperature and were beautifully ripe to just the right level. They were served with some honey-sweet grapes, a chutney that we felt was rather too weak against the robust flavours of these cheeses and crackers which again, for my taste, were not a great combination with the cheeses, but would have made nice snacks on their own.

Before desserts, I mentioned to the waitress that I had a sore throat. She immediately offered a hot drink to soothe it and when I asked for mint tea, she went to make it (with fresh mint) straight away. I really appreciated her clearly genuine concern and thoughtfulness.

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We didn’t love Pete’s dessert of poached quince, gingerbread mousse, white wine jellies. The quince was too mushy soft. The wine jellies had an odd grainy texture and not much flavour. But the gingerbread mousse served on a slice of gingerbread cake was absolutely delicious.

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My honeycomb parfait, banana compote, roasted pistachio brittle was also a mixed bag. Overall it was extremely sweet. Too sweet, even for a very very sweet-toothed person like me. The parfait was decent, with a good honeycomb flavour. The banana compote was essentially posh cubed bananas in custard; pleasantly school dinners. The pistachio brittle tasted delicious but was a bit thick and heavy, I think.

On Saturday, we again dined in the restaurant. First out was the bread (see above).

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Pete chose a trio of salmon preparations for his starter – mi-cuit, rillette & fishcake, apple & beetroot. The filleted piece of salmon was very lightly cooked, allowing the delicate salmon flavours to shine. The rillette was a nicely balanced soft, wet salmon pâté. The spherical fishcake was tasty. All worked well with the pureed apple and tiny beetroot cubes.

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I really enjoyed my potted crab, brown crab mayo & crispy egg too. The tower of crab meat is more generous that it looks in the photographs and was fresh and sweet. I loved the fresh, hot crunch of my crispy egg, with it’s perfectly soft, runny yolk. The brown crab meat mayo was a winner; deeply, deeply flavoured.

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Pete’s breast of Cornish duck, Jerusalem artichokes, pressed confit leg, sprout top choucroute, date & lemon was an intriguing choice – I wasn’t sure how the artichokes, choucroute, date and lemon would balance. The duck was cooked just right with crisped skin and pink flesh. The Jerusalem artichokes were nicely cooked and much more appealing than when I’ve encountered them before. The sprouts and bacon were very seasonal; I would not have picked them to go with duck but I liked them. The confit leg, pressed into shape and bread crumbed, was very good indeed, moist inside and picked up by the crunchy coating. We figured the sauce must be where the date and lemon were hiding, though they didn’t come through particularly strongly. All in all, a decent dish.

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Although it was perhaps a little similar to my choice the previous night, I could not resist fillet of beef, wild mushrooms, veal sweetbreads, rosti potato. The beef was really excellent. Soft yet firm and with great depth of flavour. The mushrooms and morsels of sweetbread were another savoury umami hit and perfect on a rain-lashed winter’s evening. Dark green cabbage gave us that iron-rich vegetable balance (in place of last night’s purple sprouting broccoli). The rosti was crunchy, oil-soaked naughtiness – perhaps a touch too much oil but oh so good. And the whole thing was pulled together once again by a rich, sticky, concentrated sauce that I had to stop myself licking off the plate.

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I adore banana desserts, especially when the banana has been cooked and caramelised so could not resist the banana upside down, vanilla ice cream, maple banana, lime compôte. The banana was very, very soft and the caramelisation had gone a little too far, giving too much of a burned sugar flavour for my tastes. I did like the combination of the tarte tatin style pastry with banana pieces in a maple sauce; they were very good. The ice-cream was so-so – not particularly rich, creamy or vanilla-tasting. I don’t recall the lime compôte at all and can’t spot it in any of my photographs; I wonder if it made it onto the plate?!

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Better overall was the lemon tart, satsuma sorbet, crème fraiche. The lemon custard was just set and had a lovely wobble and a good balance between tart and sweet. The pastry was excellent. The sweet sorbet was subtly flavoured, and worked very well. It’s sweetness was offset by the crème fraiche. Simple but very good.

Over all, we very much enjoyed our two dinners in the hotel’s restaurant. I think, for the price, it would have been nice to have one or two tiny tasters in between courses, as one often encounters in London restaurants at a similar price point. But given the quality of the ingredients and the cooking, the prices are certainly reasonable.

The restaurant is open to non-residents, so do book yourself a table if you are visiting the area. Better still, indulge in a night or two at the hotel to enjoy the full Scarlet experience.

Sep 272010
 

Even after a year and a half blogging, I still feel like a newbie and look to long-standing, talented and successful bloggers for inspiration and advice. Foremost in that list is the lovely Julia Parsons, creator of A Slice Of Cherry Pie.

Blogging since 2006, Julia has created a fantastic resource of recipes, many of which will be featuring in her first book, also called A Slice Of Cherry Pie, coming out this autumn. She has contributed to magazine and newspaper features and her recipes already appear in at least one cookery book on my bookshelf.

Julia also founded the UK Food Bloggers Association to give bloggers old and new a place to meet and talk, to ask questions and share advice and to discuss all manner of food blogging topics.

I first met Julia at the UKFBA Stall at the Covent Garden Real Food Market last summer – a fantastic experience for me – and we’ve since met again at blogger events in London.

Recently, Julia e-interviewed me for her new Community feature where she showcases a range of British food blogs. I was absolutely honoured to be included (read my feature here) and cheekily asked Julia if she’d answer the same questions in return, for me to share with you here on Kavey Eats.

Over to Julia!

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Name: Julia Parsons
Blogging since: 2006
Location: London

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I live in the outskirts of London with my husband, Rob, who I’ve been married to for 6 wonderful years. When we met I had two little Lhasa Apso dogs and so it was a case of love me, love my dogs. Fortunately, Rob grew up with dogs, albeit somewhat larger ones than mine, and so this ultimatum didn’t scare him off! The dogs lived to ripe old ages and are sadly no longer with us but last year we adopted a 9 year old Labrador, Ben, who’s a big, bounding joy!

As a child I loved creative and artistic activities – writing stories; drawing and painting; taking part in plays – and as I developed a love of cooking in my twenties when I moved into my own home I found a way of combining those loves through food writing, blogging and photography. When I started writing about food and creating recipes something really connected in me and it has become an integral part of my life ever since.

How would you describe your blog?

My blog is a place where I can share this part of my life with others, where I can write about food, the recipes I create, the places I visit, and connect with people all over the world who enjoy food as much as I do.

I like to think of my blog as homely and welcoming, and I love that I visitors come from all over the world. It’s great when I receive lovely emails and messages from people telling me how they get to see places in Britain through my blog and my eyes that they otherwise wouldn’t.

Where do you find inspiration for your cooking and blogging?

Inspiration comes from everywhere; food is so much a part of my life that I find inspiration wherever I go. My cooking is very much influenced by the weather and the changing seasons; I feel very much in tune with the elements.

I particularly love this time of year, as the season changes from summer to autumn. Autumn is an incredibly rich and abundant season and there’s so much for the cook to choose from so it can be a very exciting time in the kitchen with lots of variety for the week’s meals.

What do you like the most and the least about blogging?

Blogging has had a very big and positive impact on me; much more than I ever could have imagined when I started. It’s given me a whole new direction in life and has led me to write my own cookbook, as well as enabling me to meet many great people who share my love of food.

I’ve always been fascinated by diaries and so the idea of an online diary was immediately appealing when I first came across food blogs in 2006. At the time I had already developed a love of cooking and had been collecting recipes, notes and ideas for a long time and so blogging seemed the perfect way of sharing what I was learning and also trying my hand at food writing. I wasn’t sure when I started how I would take to it but as time went on and I grew as a cook and a writer I knew I’d found something that I had a real sense of harmony with.

Despite having a background working in IT, I still find it fascinating that I can connect with so many people all over the world through the internet, and I love the interaction I have with people through my blog, and social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook. I feel very fortunate to live in this technology driven world.
It’s so great how the blogging world has grown and gone from strength to strength here in Britain. There’s an incredibly strong sense of community with friendships developing on and off line, and there’s real recognition outside of the community for the talent that’s out there.

Like many bloggers, I only wish I had more time to spend on it, especially now that I’m writing books and getting involved in other projects, but that’s something I’m working on; I’ve recently taken a decision to move from a permanent job to contract work in order to give me more flexibility.

Do you have a favourite recipe you’d like to share?

Here is one of my favourite recipes for this time of year from my forthcoming cookbook, ‘A Slice of Cherry Pie’. In a few week’s time the pheasant season will be upon us and this is a great recipe to make the most of it. It’s very autumnal and perfect for cosy days or nights in.

Pot Roast Pheasants with Chestnuts and Mushrooms

Serves 4

Ingredients
olive oil
2 oven-ready pheasants
1 onion, diced
250g mushrooms, wiped clean and left whole, or roughly chopped if very large
1 tablespoon plain flour
200ml chicken stock
2 sprigs of thyme
a handful of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
250g shelled, cooked chestnuts (pre-roasted, canned or vacuum-packed)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
seasonal vegetables and potatoes, to serve

  • Heat a little olive oil in a flameproof casserole dish over a high heat then add the pheasants and brown them all over. Remove them from the dish once browned and reduce the heat down to medium.
  • Add the onion to the dish and sauté it for a minute or so then add the mushrooms. Cook the vegetables for about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour and gradually add the stock, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon. Add the herbs to the dish and season well.
  • Bring the stock up to a simmer and return the pheasants to the dish. Put on a lid and pop the dish into the oven. Add the chestnuts after the pheasants have been cooking for 40 minutes and cook them for another 20 minutes or until the pheasants are cooked through.
  • To check that the pheasants are cooked, pull on the legs to check that they have some give in them and can easily be pulled away from the body, and pierce the thigh with a skewer to make sure the juices run clear.
  • The cooking time will depend on the size of the pheasants but average sized ones should take about 1 hour.
  • Remove the pheasants from the dish. Spoon off any excess fat from the delicious cooking liquid and either serve it as it is or if you prefer it thicker, boil it on the hob to reduce it down. Serve the pheasant with the sauce and seasonal vegetables and potatoes.

Pre-order Julia’s book, published by Absolute Press, from Amazon.co.uk (below) or from Amazon.com or WHSmith.

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