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.

Jul 282014
 

Did you know that Jelly Belly do sweets other than jelly beans? I didn’t!

The good news is that the Jelly Belly Candy range is as tasty as their jelly beans. Pete and I have been ripping open bag after bag these last few weeks and I have to confess, none of them have lasted very long. Pete’s favourites are probably the Sunkist Fruit Gems – large soft fruit jelly discs. I’m torn between those and the Raspberries and Blackberries – these have a soft centre coated in crunchy candy “seeds”. There are also gummy bears (regular and hot cinnamon), chocolate Dutch mints, a liquorice “bridge mix” and American stalwart, candy corn.

Although I try not to buy sweets too often, the nostalgic pull of a bag of sweets is hard to resist and takes me straight back to ye olde Woollies pick and mix. What helps temper temptation is my increasing dissatisfaction with some of the cheaper sweets, full of jarringly artificial flavours and often far too sweet. These Jelly Belly candies are undeniably pricier but so much better that they’re absolutely worth the extra, in my opinion.

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The quintessentially American Candy Corn is now joined by Gummi Bears, Licorice Bridge Mix, Chocolate Dutch Mints, Raspberries & Blackberries, Sunkist Fruit Gems and Unbearably Hot Cinnamon Bears and the bags are priced at £6.62 each.

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COMPETITION

One Kavey Eats reader will win a set of all seven of Jelly Belly’s candy range, as pictured in the bags above. The prize includes delivery in the UK.

HOW TO ENTER

You can enter the competition in 3 ways:

Entry 1 – Blog Comment Leave a comment below, sharing your favourite childhood memory of eating sweets.

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Entry 3 – Twitter Follow @Kavey on Twitter. Existing followers are, of course, welcome to enter! Then tweet the (exact) sentence below.
I’d love to win a set of @JellyBellyUK’s new candy range from Kavey Eats! http://goo.gl/Nymaog #KaveyEatsJBCandies
(Do not add my twitter handle into the tweet; I track entries using the competition hash tag. And please don’t leave a blog comment about your tweet either, thanks!)

RULES & DETAILS

  • The deadline for entries is midnight GMT Friday 22nd August, 2014.
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  • The winner will be selected from all valid entries using a random number generator.
  • Where prizes are provided by a third party, Kavey Eats accepts no responsibility for the acts or defaults of that third party.
  • The prize is a set of Jelly Belly candies, as listed above, and includes free delivery within the UK.
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  • The prize is offered and provided by Jelly Belly.
  • One blog entry per person only. One Twitter entry per person only. One Facebook entry per person only. You may enter all three ways but do not have to do so for your entries to be valid.
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  • The winners will be notified by email, Twitter or Facebook. If no response is received from a winner within 7 days of notification, the prize will be forfeit and a new winner will be picked and contacted.

Kavey Eats received samples from Jelly Belly.

Jul 212014
 

Safari

I love safari! Pete and I are fortunate to have been on several over the last two decades and have particular soft spots for the wildlife parks of Botswana, Kenya and South Africa, to name a few.

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There’s something utterly captivating about observing birds and animals in their natural habitats, up close and personal. Of course, there are the poster animals – sleek and powerful lions and leopards, lithe and speedy cheetahs, elegant-necked loping giraffes, portly hippos, grinning hyenas, wild dogs, buffalo, zebras, wildebeest – all of which are a delight to see.

But we find just as much joy in the smaller or lesser known wildlife – a family of silver-backed jackal pups playing in the dawn light under the watchful gaze of their parents, colourful lilac-breasted rollers or malachite kingfishers taking to the wing in a flash of colour, a fighting gaggle of vultures competing fiercely over the remnants of the latest unfortunate, a sniffling porcupine shuffling through the grass with quills-a-quivering, two bat-eared foxes cautiously poking their heads up from the entrance of their den, blinking bush-babies sitting high in a tree watching us watch them, a dung beetle laboriously rolling his ball of dung along the ground, the shimmer of sunlight against the iridescent plume of a glossy starling or ibis, the striking facial patterns and horns of the mighty oryx, the tight grip of a tiny reed frog clinging to a tall stem jutting out of the waters in the Okavango Delta… There is even excitement to be found in the footprints of animals long since departed, imprinted into the earth and now a challenge to our skills of identification – elephants and lions are much easier than the many ungulates!

Someone once declared that if you’d seen one wrinkly grey elephant’s arse you’d seen them all and he couldn’t see the point of going on more than one safari in one’s life. To say that I was flabbergasted is an understatement!

There are many ways to safari, from budget self-drive to remote luxury camps with private guides. We’ve done and loved both – each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Luxury safari camps are places of such beauty – gorgeous full height canvas tents with comfortable furniture, en-suite bathrooms and open air dining rooms where guests and guides come together for delicious meals. Of course, the focus is the wildlife viewing activities but we certainly enjoy the catering and accommodations in between!

Jungle Juice Memories

It was at one such safari camp that I was first offered Jungle Juice, a jolly name for a mixed fruit smoothie. Usually featuring a banana base with a range of additional fruits depending on what was available, this quickly became a favourite for me, especially as I’m not a wine or beer drinker. Indeed, when we later visited camps that didn’t offer anything similar, I was happy to describe Jungle Juice, and they would kindly rustle some up for me. (In the same way, I have introduced more African safari guides to shandy than I care to think about!)

Of course, as Jungle Juice is simply a mixed fruit no-dairy smoothie, it’s a drink many people make and enjoy.

Jungle Juice Sorbet

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Recently, I was sent an Optimum 9400 Blender by Australian brand Froothie. It’s a super powerful blender, with a very sharp blade which means that as well as making quick work of smoothies and sauces, it can also grind nuts and seeds and crush ice. The powerful motor even allows it to knead dough, and because the blade turns at 48,000 rpm it can generate enough heat to make piping hot soups as well. I’m yet to try these functions, and will report back as I do.

What I can tell you is that the motor and blade make quick work of chunks of frozen fruit and the advantage of blending them straight from frozen is that Jungle Juice becomes Jungle Juice Sorbet!

I make Jungle Juice Sorbet with nothing but fruit – no honey or sugar, no dairy, no oats – so it’s a very healthy alternative to dairy ice creams and sugar-laden sorbets.

For the first few moments, I thought the frozen chunks of banana, pineapple and mango I had thrown into the jug were simply too solid for the blade to handle but after a few tens of seconds more, the blade started to reduce the fruit to a thick cold paste. Pete used the tamper tool provided to push the chunks at the top down nearer the blades and a few minutes later, the sorbet was done.

Of course, you’ll want to eat the sorbet the moment it’s ready, so be prepared and have your bowls, spoons and eager diners ready and waiting.

As there is no added sugar or preservatives, this sorbet is best eaten fresh.

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Jungle Juice Sorbet

Serves 4-6

Ingredients
1-2 bananas, peeled, chopped and frozen
200-300 grams mixed fruits, peeled and chopped (if necessary) and frozen

Note: So that you can make smoothies and sorbets quickly whenever you feel like it, I recommend you keep chunks of frozen fruit ready to hand in your freezer. Banana is best frozen already peeled and chopped, likewise larger fruit such as pineapple and mango. Berries can simply be washed, hulled and frozen as they are. Make sure they’re fairly dry when you put them into the freezer, so the liquid doesn’t cause them to freeze into a solid block.

Method

  • Place your chosen fruit chunks straight from the freezer into your blender. (You’ll need a really robust blender to handle this. Alternatively, a high quality food processor will also work).
  • Blend until the fruit has been broken down into a thick, creamy puree. Pause once or twice to push solid chunks down closer to the blades if necessary.
  • Serve immediately.

This is my entry for July’s #BSFIC challenge – frozen treats inspired by Holiday Memories.

IceCreamChallenge mini

 

Kavey Eats received an Optimum 9400 blender from Froothie. Kavey Eats is a member of the Froothie brand ambassador programme, but under no obligation to share positive reviews. All opinions published on Kavey Eats are 100% honest feedback.

Special Offer: For an additional 2 years warranty free of charge on any Optimum appliance purchased, follow this link, choose your Optimum product and enter coupon code “Special Ambassador Offer” on checkout.

 

It’s rare for us to make cakes the traditional way any more; creaming together butter and sugar, beating in the eggs and folding in the dry ingredients by hand is not only time-consuming but tiring on the arms too. Instead, for the last several years we’ve mixed most cake batters directly in our food processor, which has a permanent home on the kitchen work surface.

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The ingredients are tipped into the bowl, sometimes all together as in my favourite banana cake recipe, sometimes in two or three batches. The blade is very sharp so a few seconds blending is usually all it takes to bring everything together into a batter. Sometimes we need to remove the lid and scrape the sides down once, before a final quick pulse to finish.

The batter is then poured or spooned straight into the cake tin(s) and baked.

Easy peasy and very quick!

Challenged to create a few Brazilian recipes that make good use of my new Magimix 4200 XL, Pete and I made these tasty individual orange and lime cakes, more commonly made as a single larger cake. My previous post was an equally easy recipe for Brazilian Brigadeiro Chocolate Bonbons. For the basic cake batter recipe, we used a recipe by Marian Blazes, an American who has lived and travelled extensively in South America. As it was such a success for the Marzipan Cakes we made over Easter, we made individual cakes rather than one big one, and skipped the glaze altogether.

These are delightful little cakes with a refreshing and vibrant hit of citrus and, as Marian has found, very versatile – you could serve them for breakfast, elevenses, as a packed lunch treat or for afternoon tea.

Usually known as bolo de laranja, orange cake is apparently a popular cake in Brazil. I really like Marian’s combination of orange and lime, and wanted to reflect the use of two citrus fruits in the name. My friend Rosana helped me with translations.

 

Little Orange & Lime Cakes from Brazil | Bolinhos de Laranja e Limão

Makes 10 to 15 individual cakes, depending on size

Ingredients
2 oranges
1 lime
3 eggs (we used large eggs)
60 ml vegetable oil
125 grams butter, melted
300 grams plain white flour
100 grams ground almonds
350 grams sugar
1.5 teaspoons baking powder
0.5 teaspoon salt

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 180 °C (fan).
  • Liberally butter your muffin tins and then sprinkle a little flour over the buttered surfaces.
  • Zest the lime and the oranges.
  • Peel and section the orange, discarding the skin, pitch and membranes between segments. (You could candy the peel if you wish).
  • Juice the lime.
  • Place zest, orange flesh and lime juice into the food processor bowl and blend briefly until smooth.
  • Add the eggs, vegetable oil and melted butter to the processor and blend again until well mixed.
  • Add the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and ground almonds to the processor and blend until the batter is smooth. Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl and blend again briefly, if necessary.

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  • Spoon or pour the batter into the prepared muffin tins.
  • Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of your muffin tins. The smaller cakes took 25 minutes, the larger ones needed another 5 minutes.
  • Test using a skewer (it should come out clean) or press the surface lightly (it should spring back).

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  • When nicely risen, golden brown on top and cooked through, remove from the oven and leave to cool for several minutes in the tins.

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  • Remove from the tins and allow to cool fully on a wire rack.

Whatever time of day you choose to eat these bright little cakes, I hope you enjoy them!

Our new Magimix 4200 XL is very similar to our older 5200 – the key differences for us are the XL, which denotes the extra wide feed tube, and a slightly smaller footprint. The 4200 XL also comes with a BlenderMix attachment for smoothies and batters, which we’ve yet to try. Like the 5200, it comes with large, medium and mini bowls, a very sharp blade, an egg whisk attachment, a dough hook attachment and a couple of slicing and grating discs.

Other Brazilian recipes which make use of a food processor:

Pão o de Queijo (cheese bread) and Churrasco steak with salsa and rice
Cucumber Caipirinha Cocktail

Kavey Eats received a Magimix 4200 XL from Magimix.

 

I recently started a new job in Victoria, an area jam-packed with mediocre chain restaurants and coffee shops. When I asked food friends for recommendations, Uni was a name that popped up more than once, with its salmon tacos singled out for particular praise. Taco shells filled with salmon tartare isn’t a dish I’ve ever come across before, so of course, I was intrigued.

It turns out that although Uni takes its name from the Japanese for sea urchin, it’s not a straight Japanese restaurant. Rather, it describes itself as offering Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian food. Japanese food is enormously popular in parts of South America; indeed Brazil is home to the largest population of people of Japanese descent outside of Japan and Peru the second largest. My only reference for the term Nikkei was the Tokyo stock index but I’ve now learned that it’s also a term for American Japanese.

In the main part, the menu is more Japanese than Peruvian, which is not a big surprise when you learn that head chef Rolando Ongcoy once worked at Nobu. The advantage of Ongcoy’s fusion background is an openness to innovate, resulting in some welcome twists on Japanese classics.

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Images courtesy of Uni restaurant

Located on a quiet residential street steps away from Victoria station, Uni is a strange place. The front door opens onto a mid-floor landing part way up a terrifyingly transparent staircase; up leads to white leather stools around a marble counter which comes across like an over-monied art student’s wet dream – I can’t say I’m a fan; downstairs is thankfully much more understated, with soft brown fabrics and no lurid art. There are a lot of covers squeezed into a very tiny space – our corner table was tucked beneath the staircase itself, though I’ll admit it didn’t feel particularly claustrophobic.

The downside downstairs is the tight size of the tables – with small personal plates, water and a drink each on the table, it was a struggle to find space for one dish let alone two or three.

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The drinks list has more of a Peruvian influence with Pisco Sours available, as well as a coconut-based Chilli Mojito. As someone who genuinely adores Midori (melon liqueur) I couldn’t resist the Midoroska (£9.50) which was a simple but delicious and refreshing combination of vodka, midori, sugar & lime. Pete had a Sapporo beer (£4.50).

As well as the cocktails list (alcoholic and non-) there is a small range of sake (including a sweeter sparkling option) and red, white, rosé and sparkling wine. For beer drinkers, there are just two – Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo. The whisky list reveals a big missed opportunity – not a single Japanese whisky is listed!

As we read the rest of the menu, we had some edamame (£4) with sea salt flakes to start.

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Of course, we ordered the salmon tacos (£6) as one of our selection of starters. Described as salmon tartare, cucumber, tomato, masago and creamy miso, I understood on first bite why these garnered such praise from fellow visitors – the crunch of the delicate taco shell is an excellent textural balance to the soft fish inside. I don’t think I’d had masago (caplin fish roe) before but, as part of a mixed mouthful, I didn’t detect a difference from ikura (salmon roe).

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Although I knew the Japanese words of a number of individual seaweeds such as kombu, wakame, arame and hijiki I wasn’t familiar with kaiso, which is the word for seaweed.

I don’t know which types this kaiso seaweed salad with goma dressing (£6) contained but, once again, the balance of tastes and textures was spot on. I love Japanese sesame dressings and could eat this salad every day.

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Peruvian tiraditos are somewhat like (seafood) carpaccio, ceviche and sashimi but not the same as any of them. I’d say the cut of the fish is a little thicker than carpaccio, a little thinner than sashimi and the spicy dressing is not the same as that used to cure ceviche (for which the fish is more commonly chopped rather than sliced too).

We chose the yellowtail tiraditos (£15.50) and found the small plate of fish superbly fresh and beautifully dressed (with kizami wasabi, yuzu & fresh mint). But at over £2.50 per slice of fish, it was steeply priced.

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I really enjoyed the tempura rock shrimp (£15) that our waiter Nachos encouraged us to try, particularly dipped into the creamy spicy sauce. Again, pricy but a decent portion and very sweet, tasty shrimp.

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I’m more of a fan of sashimi (3 pieces per order) than sushi (2 pieces per order) but I like that all the toppings are available either way.

We decided on an order of ibodai (butterfish £6) and toro (fatty tuna £9.50), as these are always part of my sashimi tray when I buy freshly cut sashimi to eat at home from my local Atari-ya shop. Again, the superb quality of fish was impressive.

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The highlight of the meal for me was uni in the shell (£9); I’ve never encountered such fresh, sweet uni in London! The beautiful presentation was just icing on the cake (or should I say ice in the bowl?) against the smooth, creamy treat of the sea urchin roe.

If you’re a fan of uni, you should visit for this one dish, let alone the rest.

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Unagi (eel) is another Japanese classic I love, not least for the traditional sticky sweet sauce it’s commonly glazed with. The unagi maki (£6) with nori and cucumber was excellent.

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Although friends raved about Uni’s wagyu steak, the wagyu tataki (£23) was the most disappointing dish of the meal for me. Served with ponzu, truffle oil & crispy garlic, I felt that the citrus notes in the ponzu sauce completely overpowered the flavours of the beef as well as the truffle oil, which I was unable to detect. Texture-wise, the beef wasn’t remotely as marbled as the (low and medium) grade wagyu I had in Japan; that beef was so rich with fat that it melted on the tongue just like fatty tuna. The garlic crisps were delightful but overall, I wouldn’t recommend this dish.

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For dessert, we shared the mochi moriawase (£6), an attractively presented plate of 4 different mochi – black sesame, yuzu, strawberry cheesecake and chocolate. All were delicious, and we couldn’t agree on a favourite.

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I finished with a pot of genmaicha (£3.50), served in beautiful tea pot and cup.

This was a wonderful meal, no doubt about it. We enjoyed nearly everything and really loved several of the dishes.

Certainly Uni is a little pricy, but the uncompromisingly excellent quality ingredients go a fair way to justifying that. We were greedy – not to mention keen to sample all the sections of the menu – and you certainly don’t need to order quite as much as we did, but if you do, the food above comes to £53 per person, with drinks and service on top of that. Take out just a couple of items, such as the traditos and the edamame and it’s already down to £43 a head (food bill) and still a generous feast.

Work is always busy but I’m keen to slip out one lunch time and try Uni’s bento box offering and of course, I doubt I’ll be able to resist a return visit for that uni soon!

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Uni restaurant.

Square Meal

 

I have too many cookery books. There, I’ve said it.

Despite two major clear outs in the last couple of years, when lots and lots of cookery books were given away to charity shops and fundraisers, the assigned shelves are overflowing. Books are stacked two deep, with extra ones squeezed on their side above the others. Others sit in stacks on the dining room floor, living room coffee table, and even lost amongst the papers on my desk.

I’m aware my collection is tiny compared to some, numbering at only 150 or so against the many hundreds some of my friends and acquaintances report.

And yet there is still an argument to be made that I have too many. There are many that I’ve cooked from only once or twice; some that I’ve never cooked from at all. Often, I don’t even remember that I have a particular title, only to exclaim in excitement at its rediscovery during yet another session of tidying. Surely, a cookery book exists to cook from – or at the very least, to inspire and inform one’s cooking? If I consistently forget about the book, do I really need it at all?

Of course, that’s my rational head talking rather than my emotional heart, which clutches these books to itself with all the fervour of an addict, wild-eyed in distress at the thought of parting with favourite tomes, regardless of their practical use (or not) in my life.

My emotional heart says I certainly do not have too many cookery books, thank you very much!

Still, it’s true that I haven’t been making great use of my collection.

Eat Your Books

So…

  • What if there were a way of making my collection more accessible to me?
  • What if there were a way of reminding me easily about all the books that I have, and better still, of all the recipes contained within them?
  • What if there were a way of flicking through recipes by book, author or ingredient without the need to pull every single book off the shelf?

That was just the kind of thinking that occurred to sisters Jane and Fiona a few years ago. Jane came up with the core idea for Eat Your Books after realising that, despite owning a lot of cookbooks, she would go online when she wanted to find a recipe quickly. She goes on to explain, “It made me wish I had a searchable index of all my cookbooks.  I seriously considered creating my own database then realised there must be lots of people like me around the world who feel they don’t use their cookbooks enough as it takes so long to find recipes.” So she talked through her idea with sister Fiona, who has a technology background and the pair decided they had the makings of a good business.

So that is Eat Your Books: a fantastic online service offering exactly what I describe above – a way of making my collection of cookery books more accessible and therefore more useful to me.

Bookshelf

Launched in 2010, Eat Your Books is already hugely popular with many tens of thousands of users around the world. It’s particularly successful in US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and is growing its user base here in the UK.

Eat Your Books allows you to create a virtual bookshelf of all the (English-language) cookery books you own.

Once that’s been created, it’s a matter of a few clicks to search through all the recipes in all the books on your virtual bookshelf by whatever keyword you like. All the matching recipes are listed, and when you find one you like, you know exactly which book to retrieve from your real bookshelf in order to read the recipe.

In order for the search tool to be useful, every book must be indexed by hand so that recipes are keyworded only for the ingredients, techniques and descriptions that are key to each recipe and likely to be used to find them. Auto-index tools tend to list too many false positives in their search results – a search on chicken might include every recipe that uses chicken stock, for example – and are therefore not an option when creating a truly user-friendly database.

New books are being added all the time, with a focus on adding the big sellers as quickly as possible.

OlderTitles

Although I first joined a couple of years ago, it was only a couple of months ago that I finally invested the time to go through my entire real life bookshelf and add the titles to my personal Eat Your Books account. I had expected to find many of my titles missing from Eat Your Books’ database, but actually there were only a tiny handful that I couldn’t find, and they are pretty obscure titles. Judging from my collection, the database seems pretty comprehensive for books released during the last 30 to 40 years, at least.

Search

When building your bookshelf, searching can be a little tricky for some titles but most are very easy to find. For some books, searching by author or title works best; for others, I entered the book’s ISBN. For certain books, Eat Your Books lists multiple editions, so you might need to check the front cover image or ISBN number of those listed in the search results, to make sure you add the right one.

There’s also an Import Books feature (available to paid members only) which lets you enter a list of up to 500 ISBN codes in one step. You can generate this list by way of a barcode scanner app on your smartphone.


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cod potatoes 2

After populating my own bookshelf, I was keen to start searching through my recipes.

You might remember a recipe post (for cod baked with chorizo and potatoes) in which I mentioned an error that resulted a delivery of 4 kilos (rather than 4 small pieces) of beautiful Norwegian cod, much of which is still sitting in my freezer. After entering all my books onto My Bookshelf, I was delighted to discover that I have 78 recipes for cod contained within the cookery books I own, many of which I’d never have thought to turn to when seeking a recipe.

Results can be sorted by title, author, publication date and user rating. To see whether a recipe suits what you’re looking for, click the title to see a list of the main ingredients and any notes that have been added.

The more books you have, the more recipes will be listed but you can filter your search results by ingredient (very handy if you have an allergy to cater for), recipe type or course and ethnicity. I’ve filtered below to exclude salt cod, baby food, sauces and dips, and pies and pastries, to bring my list of cod recipes down from 78 to 31.

Additionally, you can also create your own bookmarks with which to tag books and recipes, to help you further categorise them above and beyond the filter definitions. I’ve created a “Made” bookmark to record recipes I’ve already cooked and another called “Shortlist” to identify those I’m keen to make soon.

Filtered search

Just this service alone would, quite frankly, be worthwhile –  for me and for anyone who owns an unwieldy collection of cookery books which they don’t make the best use of.

There are also a number of other services on Eat Your Books which are deserving of mention.

There are currently 73 food blogs (of which I’m delighted to be one) listed, with recipes indexed and searchable in exactly the same way as published cookbooks.

If you subscribe to a popular food magazine, the title can be added to your bookshelf too, giving you a quick way to search through the recipes in each issue. New issues will automatically be included in your future searches and you can add any past issues you’ve kept too.

In addition, there is a huge library of online recipes you can access, even if you don’t own the books. These are recipes that publishers and authors have officially permitted to be published online, and Eat Your Books indexes them and provides a direct link to the content.

On the rare occasions you own a book that isn’t already indexed, you can index it yourself. Though this is quite a big task, it does make your virtual bookshelf more complete, and also benefits the wider Eat Your Books community.

There is a shopping list function, but it’s not currently advanced enough to be useful as recipe indexing doesn’t currently list amounts. If developed further, I can see this becoming a valuable tool within the site.

So the next big question is how much does it cost?

The answer depends on how much of the functionality you want to access.

Some some parts of the site can be accessed without registering and if you create a non-paying account you can access quite a lot of the site.

Full functionality is reserved for those who buy premium membership, which is priced at US$25 a year or US$2.50 a month; (at today’s exchange rates that’s £15 / £1.50). Before you dismiss the idea of paying for an online service, let’s just pause to put that into perspective – £15 is the cost of a single cookery book a year and if you make proper use of the service, will help you maximise the benefit of owning all the books you already have.

  • Anyone can search the recipe database. Don’t forget that, for books and magazines, the actual recipes are not reproduced on the site – rather Eat Your Books is a sophisticated personal catalogue and search system. But users can filter the results to show only those recipes which are fully available online, linked via the site.
  • Anyone can read the blog, and subscribe to it using RSS.
  • Non-paying members can add up to five books and five magazines to their bookshelves (and self index as many additional books as they like, provided the titles are not already available on the site).
  • Paid members can add as many books and magazines as they like (and self index as well). Paid members may also use the Import Book function to add large collections of books more quickly.
  • All members can add unlimited blogs and online recipes to their bookshelves.
  • All members can upload their personal recipes to the site.
  • All members can create bookmarks (with which to tag items on their bookshelves) and can add notes to recipes and books (including personal notes).
  • All members can make use of the EYB discussion forum.
  • Paid members will not be shown advertising when visiting the site. These adverts are a way for EYB to subsidise the cost of non-paying users.

I asked Jane to tell me a little about the first few years of creating Eat Your Books and what they are planning for the service, next.

It has been a huge amount of work but we feel we now have a really valuable website.  We have indexed over a million recipes from cookbooks, magazines and blogs.  Members can add any online recipe they see and also index their own personal recipes.  There is no other place in the world where you can have a searchable index of all your recipes.  I think for anyone who loves cooking, EYB is the best tool for organizing your recipe collection.  For the future, there are lots of new features we plan to add.  We also want to improve our mobile site and add an app.  Our biggest issue, as a small company, is getting ourselves better known – so thank you Kavey for spreading the word.

 

COMPETITION

Eat Your Books are offering a truly fantastic prize to one of my readers – a lifetime premium membership to Eat Your Books. That’s right, not just a single year’s subscription but an account that lasts a lifetime.

HOW TO ENTER

You can enter the competition in 3 ways:

Entry 1 – Blog Comment
Leave a comment below, telling me which cookery book is your favourite and why.

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

Entry 3 – Twitter
Follow
@Kavey on Twitter. Existing followers are, of course, welcome to enter! Then tweet the (exact) sentence below.
I love cookery books! So I’d love to win a lifetime subscription to @
EatYourBooks from Kavey Eats! http://goo.gl/RTA24E #KaveyEatsEYB
(Please do not add my twitter handle into the tweet; I track entries using the competition hash tag. And you don’t need to leave a blog comment about your tweet either, thanks!)

RULES & DETAILS

  • The deadline for entries is midnight GMT Saturday 6th July 2014.
  • Kavey Eats reserves the right to alter the closing date of the competition. Changes to the closing date, if they occur, will be shown on this page.
  • The winner will be selected from all valid entries using a random number generator.
  • Entry instructions form part of the terms and conditions.
  • Where prizes are to be provided by a third party, Kavey Eats accepts no responsibility for the acts or defaults of that third party.
  • The prize is a lifetime premium membership subscription to Eat Your Books.
  • The prize cannot be redeemed for a cash value.
  • The prize is offered and provided by Eat Your Books.
  • One blog entry per person only. One Twitter entry per person only. One Facebook entry per person only. You may enter all three ways but do not have to do so for your entries to be valid.
  • For Twitter entries, winners must be following @Kavey at the time of notification. For Facebook entries, winners must Like the Kavey Eats Facebook page at time of notification.
  • Blog comment entries must provide a valid email address for contacting the winner.
  • The winners will be notified by email, Twitter or Facebook. If no response is received from a winner within 7 days of notification, the prize will be forfeit and a new winner will be picked and contacted.

 

Kavey Eats received a complimentary subscription from Eat Your Books.

 

A Friendly Argument

I wasn’t expecting an invitation to The House of Ho. I got into a friendly argument with Bobby Chinn you see…

I was a guest in the audience for a panel discussion about the Future of London’s Dining Scene hosted by Land Securities, a property development company behind the new Nova complex in Victoria. Nicholas Lander (former restaurateur and FT restaurant correspondent) chaired the discussion, with input from Henry Dimbleby (founder of Leon), Kate Spicer (journalist), Martin Morales (restaurateur, founder of Ceviche) and Bobby Chinn (restaurateur, founder of The House of Ho).

In reality, there was very little discussion on the future of the dining scene. Instead, the chatting was mainly centred on where we are today, how we got here and what is popular right now. The rise of social media and blogging was inevitably raised, during which Bobby Chinn took issue with a blogger who’d posted a review of his restaurant after visiting on the first day. He was also frustrated by that blogger’s willingness to pass comment on the authenticity of his Vietnamese food without ever having stepped foot in Vietnam.

As input from the audience was encouraged, I stood up and asked a question. Was the visit during a soft launch, with reduced prices to mitigate potential teething issues or was the restaurant charging full prices on the date of the visit? On the first full price day, he replied. Whilst I agree that it’s a little surprising to pass judgement on a new restaurant so early on, I pointed out that bloggers are not professional food critics, rather we are, in the main part, enthusiastic consumers with a voice. As such, if a restaurant is charging customers full price for its food, it should accept being judged on that basis.

We had a bit of friendly but passionate back and forth on the topic (with Bobby suggesting that bloggers might like to sink their own money into opening a new restaurant to appreciate how it feels) before Nick moved the discussion forward.

I should add too that Bobby clarified that bloggers have been pretty good for his business on the whole and he’s appreciated their coverage, which has mainly been positive.

After the panel session was over, I made my way over to introduce myself properly to Bobby and to say that, whilst I don’t tend to review restaurants quite that early on, mostly because I rarely rush to visit when places are so new, I stood by my statement that full prices means being fully open to criticism. Also, I felt that he had conflated two distinct issues – the right or wrongs of posting a review in the early days and the rights and wrongs of commenting on authenticity of a cuisine without the experience or knowledge to do so intelligently. I wondered if his frustration at the second aspect was colouring his feedback on the first.

In any case, I thanked him for engaging in debate so openly and exchanged business cards.

To my delight, as I was getting ready to leave at the end of the evening, Ranjit Mathrani (one of the owners of Veeraswamy, Chutney Mary and Masala Zone restaurants) approached me, shook my hand and told me he was in complete agreement with me, that I had spoken well and he too felt that as soon as a restaurant is charging full price, it should expect to be judged.

A week later, an unexpected invitation arrived from The House of Ho’s marketing manager, inviting me to come in and visit. After such an intense and engaging first meeting with owner Bobby, I couldn’t say no!

Bobby Chinn

So, who is Bobby Chinn? Well, as I discovered, he’s a larger than life character with a story to match. In his recently published cookbook, Bobby Chinn’s Vietnamese Food, he describes himself as an “ethnic mutt” – half Chinese-half Egyptian – who grew up in New Zealand, England and America. I suggest you read the book to follow the story in full but in a nutshell: in the mid 1990s Chinn’s father identified Vietnamese cuisine as one that would soon explode in popularity around the world. So Bobby moved to Vietnam, having recently discovered a love and skill for cooking, ended up establishing restaurants in Saigon then Hanoi, and became a genuine authority on authentic Vietnamese cooking in the process. At the same time, he launched his television career with a show about Asian food for Discovery Network Travel and Living.

In December last year, he opened his first UK restaurant, The House of Ho, bringing his brand of Vietnamese cooking to London. Whilst some of the menu is a faithful rendition of traditional dishes, the rest is Bobby’s modern take on Vietnamese cuisine, bringing modern and international ingredients and techniques into play. His book gives more background on the food he loves to cook, full of stories of street food vendors he persuaded to share their secrets, and the thought processes behind dishes he developed himself.

The House of Ho

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In fact, the menu is a little confusing. Dishes are divided between sections for Light & Raw, Hot & Grilled, Ho’s Dishes, Sides and Dessert. Pricing suggests that the first two sections might be starters, with Ho’s Dishes being larger, but we’re advised that the whole menu is about small sharing plates and are recommended to order 5 to 7 dishes between two, with no real guidance on balancing between the sections.

A Saigon beer (£4.50) and a refreshing Rosy Lemonade (rose petal, kumquat, lemongrass syrup and lemonade £4.50) kick off the meal and soon, our dishes begin to arrive.

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First to come out (in that “dishes will arrive when they’re ready” style of service that make life easier for the kitchen but less predictable for punters) is the BBQ Baby Back Ribs on a Light Asian Slaw (£6 from Hot & Grilled). The ribs are classic American Barbecue and the meat just the right texture – falling away from bone easily but not so soft it’s like baby food. Nice but not very Asian. That requirement is covered by the Asian slaw, which I really enjoy – light, crunchy and refreshing, though quite mild in overall flavour.

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Stuffed Tofu with a Mushroom Medley, Cellophane Noodles in Tomato Sauce (£5 from Hot & Grilled) is a pretty dish. Crisp-skinned soft tofu with a slightly bland filling of teeny tiny mushrooms and noodles, served on a puddle of rich classic European tomato sauce that would be the pride of any Italian mama. I ask Bobby about the dish later; he tells me that the original Vietnamese dish is a more rustic affair with a tomato sauce mixed into mushrooms, noodles and tofu. Knowing little about what is available in Vietnam, I wonder if the sauce is an influence of the French colonial period?

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Another prettily presented dish arrives, the Spicy Salmon Tartare, Chopped Pistachio, Shiso, Jicama with Asian Vinaigrette (£7, Light & Raw). This is excellent, with punchy flavours and some great textures. I’d never have thought of pistachios with salmon but love the combination. Those rice crackers are a thing of beauty and perfect to scoop up the mixed tartare.

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I like The ‘Shaking Beef’, Grass-Fed, 21 Day-Aged Fillet (£14, Ho’s Dishes) better than Pete. We both appreciate the excellent quality of the meat, and how very tender it is. Pete finds the flavours a little too understated, but I love the freshness and tastes of the mixed micro herbs, which add a lot to the dish. Even with the quality of the beef, it’s a little pricy for the portion, given that it includes no vegetables or rice.

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I absolutely love the Apple-Smoked Pork Belly, Braised Cabbage. Egg (£11, Ho’s Dishes) though, goodness me, there’s hardly any cabbage at all – more of a garnish – and two egg halves would make it a better sharing dish. But the fatty pork belly is cooked to perfection and the rich caramelised sauce is very good indeed.

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The portion of Lemongrass Monkfish with a Fish Caramel Sauce (£12, Ho’s Dishes) is disappointingly small for the price tag, though the tastes and textures are lovely. It’s not cloyingly sweet, indeed the key flavour is that of the lemongrass, with the welcome addition of the spring onions.

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A side of Morning Glory (£4, Sides) is simply, tasty and adds some much needed greenery. A jasmine rice (£2.50) is good to mop up juices.

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I often find chocolate desserts in Asian restaurants (of various nationalities) far too sweet so the Molten Marou Chocolate Cake (£6.50, Dessert)  is a pleasant surprise. Excellent quality dark chocolate is used to flavour a small cake, cooked just right to give a gooey centre.

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I love my little Lemon-Scented Creme Brulee (£5.50, Dessert). Pete thinks it’s too small, especially as the price point is that of a full size dessert, but the creamy richness and flavour means I’m not too disappointed though he’s right that I could happily have eaten a little more!

Not in the mood for drinking, we don’t pay much attention to the wine menu, but I do enjoy a shot of Misty Mountain, Junmai Usu-nigori Sake, (£6.50 for 50ml) with dessert. When I dither over my sake choice, the waitress kindly suggests bringing me a taster of the two I’m choosing between, which is a nice touch.

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Overall, we enjoy the meal. With such a short menu, I’d like to see more space given over to classic Vietnamese dishes, though I enjoyed Bobby’s interpretations well enough. Ingredients are of good quality, presentation is appealing and I’m always a fan of sharing a higher number of small plates rather than a couple of full size ones.

And I must comment on the beautiful crockery which contributed much to the visual presentation of the dishes – Bobby has an almost Japanese sensibility in the choice of beautiful individual dishes to showcase his food.

Pricing is a bit high, even taking into account the heart-of-Soho location – the BBQ ribs are good value, and the tartare and tofu fair, but the shaking beef and lemongrass monkfish are pricy. With our very limited drinks order, our bill would be around a ton (were we not dining as guests).

Service hasn’t been as consistent as I’d hoped. The tasters of sake were much appreciated. But it has been hard to attract attention even before the restaurant was full and it has sometimes been lacking in focus; at one point, our waitress turned away from us as I was mid-sentence, in reaction to a discussion between the customers and waitress at the table behind us, continued to observe their conversation for the next several minutes, and then wandered off in reaction to it, leaving us with our mouths open and no chance to complete our request. The friendliness is here, but not the attention.

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I did enjoy our window table, looking out on the hustle and bustle of Soho; it’s not every day you see two fundraising teletubbies wandering past as you dine!

 

Kavey Eats dined as guests of The House of Ho.
The House of Ho on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

 

Back in the late 1990s, a friend took me to Matsuri St James. It was a fair bit pricier than the restaurants we more commonly visited, but he’d heard good things about the food and was keen to try. Most of the clientele were Japanese and virtually all of them were men, probably a factor of its location within walking distance of the Japanese Embassy, the authenticity of its cuisine and the suitability of the teppanyaki experience for corporate dining, when Suits with expense accounts entertain groups of Important People.

We enjoyed it immensely. The food was excellent and the teppanyaki spectacle both entertaining but understated. I dropped a business card into a box and was delighted to win a meal for two, which gave me the opportunity to enjoy another fine meal there a few weeks later.

Somehow, after that, I never made it back. It wasn’t wholly a factor of price – even then, in junior roles with junior salaries to match, Pete and I regularly splashed out for special occasions. And it wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it. I think it just fell off my radar. Out of sight, out of mind. Always more restaurants to discover.

And that’s the problem Matsuri continues to face; well known within the London Japanese community and particular the Japanese business and diplomatic sector, it hasn’t really caught the attention of a wider clientele.

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After enjoying some drinks in the upstairs waiting area, we took our seats at the horseshoe teppanyaki tables for a welcome from the restaurant’s President, Yoshinori Hatta. He gave us a brief introduction to the restaurant, during which we learned that it was launched in 1993 as a joint venture between JR Central and Kikkoman soy sauce company; indeed Mr Hatta was originally an engineer with the railway company – now that’s a career change and a half! He introduced the rest of the team including restaurant manager Cristoforo Santini, sommelier Tommaso Riccardo Guzzardo and new head chef Ryosuke Kishi and told us they had recently launched a sushi bar within the restaurant.

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Assorted Sushi – Head chef Kishi-san making sushi for our starter plate. The selection was a little staid, but the quality of the fish was excellent.

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Prawn and Vegetable Tempura – Prawn, sweet potato triangle, shishito pepper, baby sweet corn in a delightfully crisp and light batter.

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Alaskan Black Cod Marinated in Ginger – Our teppanyaki chef Marvin made us smile when he referred to the beautiful cloche as a Japanese microwave! The silky cod was richly flavoured by the soy and ginger marinade. This dish was a favourite for many of our group.

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Txogitxu Galician Beef T-Bone Steak – From a Japanese breed of cattle (prized for wagyu) raised in Spain, this steak had a high fat content that made it rich and melting. Though not a match for true wagyu, it was very good indeed. I particularly liked that our chef cut and served the wobbly fat as well.

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For those who didn’t eat fish, an alternate course of Foie Gras, Smoked Duck and Mushroom was provided and they kindly let the rest of us have a taste. I didn’t detect any smokiness but the richness of the foie gras, moist duck and umami mushrooms was an excellent combination. Also pictured, is the gorgeous Virgule knife that I desperately covet and the fresh white and green asparagus, served with both the duck dish and the steak.

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Garlic Butter Egg Fried Rice – Though it was impressive watching this be fried, it lacked the depth of flavour I expected.

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Fire-Ball Ice-Cream – Dessert was the exact same one served when I first visited, almost two decades ago. There’s something rather charming about sticking to such a signature dish, and of course, it’s fun to see ice cream being cooked and flambéed on the teppanyaki grill. Decent, but would have been far more delicious had the restaurant sourced properly ripened and sweet pineapple.

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One of the key aspects of the teppanyaki dining experience is your teppanyaki chef, who explains the dishes as he’s cooking and adds to the experience by answering questions and injecting occasional humour. Marvin, who manned our grill, made us smile many times so I was irritated when a member of the management team gruffly admonished him to smile more, as though he were a performing monkey. It was, for me, the only sour note of the evening.

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Dishes were matched with sake and wine. With the exception of dessert wine, I’m not a wine drinker, so asked for a sparkling sake. This sweet bubbling option is enormously refreshing, with a floral peachy flavour that I particularly love. My dining companions made appreciative noises about the white and red wines served. I really loved the sweet umeshu (plum wine) served with dessert, Umenoyado Aragoshi.

 

Of course, all this comes at quite a cost. Our menu was specially put together to showcase the restaurant’s signature dishes but I asked Cristoforo to cost it up for me and he came back with a price per head for a group of 6 of £63, comparable to their cheapest set menu, The Matsuri, at £65 per head. However, be aware that The Matsuri Set provides only one main course against our two of black cod and steak, and there is a supplement to upgrade to garlic fried rice in place of steamed. More generous is the Aoi Set, which features both a seafood (lobster) and steak main dish, at £100 per person or the Okagura Set at £145. You can also order à la carte, and comfortably enjoy a nice selection for around the same price as the Matsuri Set. Plus drinks, of course.

Once upon a time, the quality and authenticity of the Matsuri St James offering was more than enough to justify the prices. Today, the popularity of Japanese cuisine has soared and there are more and more and more authentic Japanese restaurants for Londoners to choose from. What’s more, the Japanese concept of restaurants that specialise in a particular type of cooking or ingredient has reached us too and we can visit restaurants offering yakitori, ramen, udon noodles, okonomyaki and even kaiseki ryori. Older Japanese restaurants have stepped up their game by offering more adventurous Japanese menus. Newer ones are often enthusiastically geeky about their chosen area of focus. While Matsuri continues to do what it does and do it very well, it’s competing in a much wider field and many of those in the race are more affordable. That said, it still excels at fine dining for groups of 6-8 and sharing a teppanyaki table with a group of friends remains a great way to celebrate a special occasion.

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Matsuri St James. First two images reproduced with kind permission.

 

Some people love chef’s tables. Others really aren’t fans.

Blurring the line between kitchen and diners, a chef’s table invites a small group of customers to dine in the heart of the kitchen, where they can watch what goes on behind the scenes as the chefs bustle about their business.

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Respected critic Marina O’Loughlin describes the “chef’s table phenomenon” as “rich Victorians peering at Bedlam inmates for sport” and a commenter on her article labels people who like them as tosserati. But she’s talking about an experience in which the diners sharing the table are strangers, and she is stuck with a plate-licker and silent photographers for the duration. It sounds more like going to the theatre, but getting to eat as part of the performance.

More common are tables to be booked by a single group, like the one at Odette’s restaurant in North London.

Owned and helmed by Bryn Williams, this Primrose Hill institution has been popular with locals since it opened in 1978. Williams took over in 2008 and has gained a loyal following for his confident modern cooking and high quality ingredients, many of which are sourced from his home region in Wales.

During a recent kitchen refurbishment, Williams completely rearranged the space and found himself with a generously sized un-used alcove that was crying out for a chef’s table. Its position means diners who book Odette’s Kitchen Table have the opportunity to observe the chefs at work as much or little as they like, but have enough separation from the core cooking area to catch up with their friends and have a sociable evening together.

My visit was the result of a PR invitation, but with just six of us at the table, all of whom knew each other already, it was more an evening with friends than a typical media event. Indeed, while we appreciated the chance to have a quick tour of the kitchen, the invitation to help cook and plate one or two of our dishes if we wanted to, and the ability to glance up and watch the small team of chefs at work, we mostly got on with chatting about everything and anything, from holidays to weddings to families to our student days. Of course, photos of the delicious food were taken, but what I most enjoyed about the evening was that we spent virtually no time dissecting the actual dishes – other than brief comments of appreciation, we focused more on eating, drinking, gabbing and laughing.

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The kitchen table, Williams instructing his chefs, Ed being told about the fish before having a go at cooking, a chef finishing dishes at the pass, pans, Chloe helping with dessert

Dining at The Kitchen Table means booking an expanded version of the tasting menu. The standard tasting menu, available in the restaurant, offers 6 dishes for £50 (or 7 for £55 if you add the cheese course). You can add wines for an additional £35. The Kitchen tasting menu is £80, which includes the cheese course, several snacks before the first course proper and coffee and petits fours at the end. With wine, it’s £125.

The small team of chefs each “own” different dishes and as each one is served, the chef responsible comes to the table to introduce it in a little more detail than is provided on the menu.

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Slices of Carmarthen Ham – one of the “snacks” before the named menu dishes.

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Truffle Arancini – second snack, heady with truffle and very soft and moist.

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Goats Cheese Choux Pastry – third snack, served hot and fresh.

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Marinated scallop, pear, mooli & Carmarthen ham – like petals at the bottom of the bowl, almost translucent paper-thin slices of mooli, on top of these a mayonnaise made of scallop roe, oil and chilli peppers, then a small pile of diced scallop and pear (served raw), in a ceviche dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and sugar and a garnish of sea purslane and Carmarthen ham. The combination of pear and scallop was surprisingly wonderful.

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New season asparagus, lardo, truffle & smoked rapeseed – blanched new season asparagus, a mayonnaise (made using Welsh smoked rapeseed oil, eggs, vinegar and Dijon mustard), a truffle dressing with shallots, mushroom, garlic, thyme, bay, madeira and truffle juice, finished with sherry vinegar and olive oil, on top a slice of lardo (cured pork backfat), micro herbs and truffle. This dish showed off top quality new season asparagus very nicely.

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Whole lemon sole Grenobloise, salsify, potted shrimp sauce – A fillet of lemon sole with a classic Grenobloise garnish featuring lemon, capers, parsley and croutons, modernised by the use of Lilliput capers, lemon segments, soda bread croutons, brown shrimps and sea purslane. Served with an emulsified sauce based on the butter and spices used to pot shrimp. Garnished with salsify. Perfectly cooked, with beautiful flavours.

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Welsh lamb, courgette & anchovies tarte fine, artichoke, tomato – rump of Welsh Elwy Valley lamb, medium rare. The description tells me it was served on a courgette, onions and anchovy tart but I neither remember seeing that on the plate, nor can I spot it in the photos, so I assume it was omitted. The baby artichoke was cooked Barigoule (in white wine, vinegar and lemon juice with herbs and spices) before being fried. There was also a spiced tomato chutney and virtually insignificant amounts of sauce.

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Perl wen and truffle – organic Perl Wen cheese with freshly grated truffle, served with bara brith (fruited brown bread) and savoury crackers with poppy and fennel seeds. Generous truffle with perfectly ripe cheese and excellent bread and crackers.

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Garrigette strawberries, cheesecake & elderflower – Strawberries lightly marinated in jus de fraise (strawberry syrup) and elderflower cordial, a thin tuile of feuille de brique pastry with honey, a quenelle of “cheesecake” (made with Philadelphia cheese, crème fraiche, cream, sugar and vanilla), elderflower and lemon granita and additional jus de fraise. Super sweet, but the very essence of fruit.

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Odette’s jaffa cake, orange cream & marmalade – layers of sponge with marmalade, dark chocolate mousse and orange jelly, chocolate soil, an orange burnt cream and a chocolate caramel tuile. A beautiful dessert, really well balanced, lovely textures, tasted fabulous and looked stunning.

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Chocolate truffles.

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Mini chocolate eclairs – generously filled with a soft creamy custard.

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Mini Madeleines  hot out of the oven. Delicious orange zest flavour.

 

As I’d hoped, the meal was excellent. It’s not uncommon with a tasting menu for there to be one or two dishes that aren’t as good, or simply not to my taste, as the rest but here I enjoyed every dish, from the first snack to the last petit four and everything in between. And for the courses we had, I thought £80 was great value.

Service, as in the restaurant proper, was warm and helpful without being obsequious or pushy.

Being in an alcove on the other side of the pass meant that we had great access to the kitchen but also had our own space. We were not pressured to watch the chefs in sycophantic fashion – rather their presence and our interaction with them was simply a small but fun extra facet of our meal. It was also a wonderfully peaceful kitchen with focused chefs calmly performing their jobs; no need for drama or stress or noise.

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of Odette’s restaurant.

 

Do you drink a variety of teas? Black, green, white? Oolong? {whispers} Herbal or fruit? {stops whispering}

How do you make yours?

Do you boil the kettle, pour boiling water over the tea bag or leaves and stir impatiently to make the tea brew faster?

Do you brew directly in the mug?

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I use loose leaf tea in a mug.

I don’t really miss a teapot as I rarely drink more than a mug of tea at a time (and never the same tea as Pete chooses to drink). Tea leaves go into a fine mesh strainer that can easily be lowered into my mug. I reuse the same leaves for at least another brew, often two or three, depending on the tea.

But I am guilty of using boiling water straight from the kettle.

And, as any fule kno, many teas are not at their best when brewed in boiling water.

Black tea (and herbal or fruit infusions, which I snootily don’t consider to be tea) are better suited to brewing at 100°C.

But oolong, green and white teas benefit from lower temperatures.

Flavour-providing amino acids and natural sugars dissolve into water at relatively low temperatures, releasing sweetness as well as a range of rich and complex flavours. Higher water temperatures extract more tannins resulting in bitterness that can easily overwhelm the key flavours of these types of teas.

Good quality tea should be treated with respect.

I really ought to know better, having benefited from the wonderful expertise of many a top tea master over the years. I have tasted exquisite teas from China to Japan, Taiwan to Korea, India to East Africa and enjoyed them at their optimum. And yet the best I’ve managed when making tea at home is to leave the kettle for a few minutes after boiling, to allow the temperature of the water to drop a little. Of course, I never have any idea of just how much it’s dropped.

It’s criminal really, given that I happily spend money on excellent tea. My current favourite is still Momo Cha Fine Teas’ High Mountain Oolong, but I’m also enjoying a delicious genmai-cha from The East India Company and an elderly but surprisingly well preserved oolong from Teanamu (my fault: I found it, forgotten, at the bottom of a box of tea).

For over a year, I’ve loosely been investigating smart kettles – the kind that allow you to heat the water to a number of different temperatures. A friend of mine has one and I’ve been coveting my own but I never get farther than an idle internet browse. I’ve not even made a shortlist, let alone picked a winner and placed an order.

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Lucky day, then, when Sage by Heston Blumenthal asked me if I’d be interested in trying their Tea Maker, a specialist kettle with tea making function built in. The Tea Maker has a number of pre-sets and the option to use customised settings too. You can use it simply as a kettle, heating the water to your desired temperature. It also offers a brewing function: place tea leaves into the basket provided and the Tea Maker will lower the leaves into the heating water for a specific amount of time, dependent again on the type of tea. Lastly, the Tea Maker can keep the tea (or water) warm for up to an hour.

I probably won’t use the brewing function very often, as it’s recommended for a larger volume of water than I’d want to brew at a time. But the adjustable brewing temperature is an easy way for me to enjoy my favourite teas at their very best.

 

You can find more information about the Sage by Heston Blumenthal Tea Maker here, including a video of Heston explaining how it works. To hear Heston talk in more detail about tea, see this #TalkTeaWithHeston Youtube video.

Kavey Eats received a sample Tea Maker from Sage by Heston Blumenthal. All opinions expressed are my own.

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