A few weeks ago, I was invited to All Star Lanes in Westfield Stratford to learn executive chef Steve Collins’ chilli con carne recipe and a few cocktails from mixologist Adam Seidman. The master classes were filmed as part of some new promotional material for Westfield Stratford’s website, though thankfully I’m only visible briefly!
Fashion and shopping aren’t really my thing, but I was impressed with the sheer scale of eating options at the new shopping centre, including Italian (Jamie’s and Franco Manca), Thai (Busaba Eathai), Mexican (Wahaca), Brazilian (Cabana), Moorish / Middle Eastern (El Cantara and Comptoir Libonais), Japanese (Umai and Yo Sushi), Vietnamese (Pho) and several more chain outlets such as Giraffe, Pizza Express and Spud-U-Like, to name just a few.
I wouldn’t make a visit especially to eat at most of these places unless I lived just around the corner, but I’d certainly be happy to stop for a meal if I did end up coming for some shopping.
Steve Collins is the executive chef for All Star Lanes and as such, he looks after the menu for all their branches. Chefs at the individual outlets do have the opportunity to add a few dishes to their local menu, but core items such as Steve’s chilli are made to his fixed recipe.
With all the ingredients already prepped and measured out for us, all that remained was for each of us to cook our own huge pot of chilli under the careful and helpful guidance of Steve. His recipe is for a UK style chilli con carne with American influences from his research trips to the States. It does include minced beef and kidney beans, so purists look away now!
Of course, being a commercial restaurant, Steve’s exact recipe is secret, though we did learn his tips and tricks as we cooked our own. A few of the things that struck me:
Steve has his beef ground quite coarsely, to add texture, and uses a mix of beef shin and chuck.
The volume of powdered spice he adds is more than I have used before for the equivalent volume of meat. Don’t be shy when it comes to the key flavour components. His exact spice mix and ratio is not for sharing, but on tasting, I correctly guessed that the key components were cumin, coriander and chilli powder.
A combination of red wine and strong beef stock reduces down to give a good flavour without any obvious wine kick.
The kidney beans are added for the last 10 minutes of cooking only, so they don’t disintegrate during the long slow cooking.
Once our chillis were finished, we compared the results, each one slightly different even though we’d followed the same recipe and sat down to enjoy a bowl of our own, served with fried tortilla nachos and a fresh salsa. I really enjoyed the flavours of the chilli, but would have liked to reduce the liquid down a bit further, as it was a touch runny for my tastes.
Here’s the video of the chilli being made:
Part way through cooking our chillis, once we’d added all our ingredients (save the kidney beans), we left our pots simmering gently on the stove and popped across to the bar for a master class with mixologist Adam.
We made (and enjoyed drinking) peach cobblers, pina coladas, dark and stormies and my favourites, pineapple and cardamom jars.
My favourite tip from the class was Steve’s recipe for cardamom syrup, made simply by infusing good quality green cardamoms in sugar syrup. Delicious!
Kavey Eats was a guest of All Star Lanes and Westfield Stratford. With thanks to the two Steves.
The first time I made chicken liver paté, I was quite nervous. A food friend encouraged me by sharing their recipe, and I was amazed at the ease and tastiness of the result, not to mention how inexpensive it was. Since that time, I developed my own version, a chicken liver and port paté that I make fairly often.
But for some time, I’ve been thinking about a non-alcoholic version that wouldn’t pale in comparison with its boozy sibling.
When Russell Hobbs set the theme for week 3’s cookery challenge as “Blended Fruitiness”, my personal paté challenge popped into mind. Although I regularly use a blender to make smoothies, shakes and soups I use it most often to make chicken liver paté.
Incorporating fruit would surely give me a way to add an extra flavour dimension to take the place of the port? I ruled fresh fruit out straight away – it struck me that the concentrated sweet flavours of dried fruits would work much better here.
To my surprise, I could find no existing recipes for such a paté, whether I searched on dates or prunes, raisins or figs, cranberries or apricots.
I decided to experiment, and the result is as delicious as I could have hoped for!
This is a soft, spreadable paté; not the terrine kind you can cut into slices and lift out of the dish. For that reason, I recommend that you make it in a large, shallow dish for an informal dinner, encouraging everyone to dive in and spoon a dollop onto their plates, or in individual ramekins for a more formal presentation.
Kavey’s Chicken Liver & Apricot Paté
Ingredients 400 grams chicken livers, cleaned, each liver cut into 2-3 pieces
150 grams butter
1 medium to large onion, diced or sliced
Thyme, fresh or dried, to taste
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped or crushed
Salt & pepper, to taste
150 grams soft dried apricots Optional Clarified butter to cover
Melt half the butter into a large pan and gently fry the onions for a couple of minutes, then add the garlic. Keep the heat low and stir regularly, to avoid colouring.
Once the onions are soft, transfer into the blender and set aside.
In the other half of the butter, fry the livers and thyme over reasonably high heat for about 3 minute until the livers have stiffened and browned. They should be pale pink inside but no dark (raw) pink should remain.
Transfer the livers and butter into the blender with the onions.
Blend until smooth.
Add salt and pepper, and 100 grams of whole dried apricots and blend again until smooth.
Taste to check seasoning, add more if required.
Chop the remaining 50 grams of dried apricots finely and stir into the blended pate, making sure they are evenly distributed.
Transfer the paté into individual ramekins or a single larger dish.
Leave to cool, transferring to the fridge once the initial heat has dissipated.
Optional: Clarify some butter (melt and remove impurities) before pouring or spooning very gently over the surface of the paté, to a depth of 2-3 mm. Return to fridge for butter to set solid.
Serve cold, with toasted bread or brioche and a sweet jam or chutney.
This paté benefits from being left overnight in the fridge before serving.
If the surface is covered in butter, it will last a few days in the fridge.
It freezes very well, just allow it to defrost for several hours in the fridge before serving.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why? Because, for me, Soho is a lot more convenient than either his Islington Camden Passage or Bank locations. Which means more fabulous Paul A Young chocolate in my life! (OK, the only bit of not so good news is the impact this will have on my bank balance).
Paul’s third store is right in the heart of Soho, towards the top end of Wardour Street.
It’s more spacious than either of the other two locations, decorated in the same classy purple colour scheme, plus a feature wall of very pretty Cole & Son cocoa pod wallpaper. Big glass windows give plenty of light and the square shop space is furnished with some very beautiful hand-picked furniture including a huge, ornately carved church alter as a counter, a vast round table made from reclaimed elm wood, a white-painted Welsh dresser and a 19th century Parisian glass display unit. The only piece that isn’t reclaimed is a black Ikea unit which Paul customised himself with some fancy gold paint and golden cocoa pods. And crowning it all is a gorgeous blown glass chandelier, made by London company roast designs– eat your heart out Chihuly, this is simply stunning!
The shop looks good.
Not least because Paul has decided to pare back the number of products on offer, making for a cleaner look and allowing the customer to focus more easily on what is there. He also plans to offer more seasonal chocolates than ever before.
For those who’ve visited the tiny kitchen in his Islington Camden Passage store, an even bigger change is hidden below in the form of a huge kitchen area with high ceilings, lots of storage space and even a space for staff coffee and lunch breaks. It sits below the chocolate shop but also extends below neighbouring stores too. Given how much Paul achieved in the smaller space, it’s exciting to think what he will manage in this vast and shiny arena.
He’s already promised tasting sessions, classes and demonstrations down there, which I’m very much looking forward to.
(First. In. Queue.)
Invited to the launch day, it was a pleasure to see Paul’s (and partner James Cronin’s) plans come to fruition, albeit some months later than originally planned, due to complications with the planning approval process. When work finally started, it took them just six weeks to convert the entire space, upstairs and downstairs. This was a bigger job than you might think given the derelict state of the basement – it had formerly been a nightclub and had nicotine stained walls, a collapsed archway and walls that crumbled to the touch!
And of course, we were also invited to try some of Paul’s new seasonal collection.
A confession: I loved Paul’s chocolates when I first tried them a couple of years ago, but in recent months, I’d had less consistent experiences. Some of the chocolates I’d tried during the last couple of visits I’d found too insipid, lacking the punch and sheer excitement that had drawn me in before.
To my delight, the new collection were full of flavour and exciting combinations and I fell head over heels with nearly every chocolate I tried.
There were lots of new flavours including Appleton Estate rum and golden raisin, St Germain liqueur with elder flower, coconut water and lemon grass, delicately dark raspberry… (all of which I really enjoyed) and a number of classics including the summery Pimm’s cocktail, the sea salted caramel dome and the love it or hate it Marmite truffle. I was really impressed with the goats cheese, rosemary and lemon which is much more robust than previous incarnations thanks to Paul switching to a different goats cheese and goats milk. The new tomato, basil and olive oil chocolate (made with a tomato passata supplied by a fellow Soho trader) was intriguing; although tomato is a fruit it’s still odd to experience flavours that are normally associated with savoury dishes in a sweet chocolate!
The huge summer pudding chocolates, featuring berry compote, basil, raspberry ganache and caramelised hazelnut pieces in a white chocolate shell inlaid with freeze dried raspberry, were deeply satisfying. Before you wonder just how greedy I was, can I point out that several of us shared one of these beauties!
The three chocolates I loved the best were passion fruit curd and coffee (such a naturally balanced pairing it’s amazing it’s not been discovered before), sea salted black sesame tahini (which had a gooey interior balanced against the roasted sesame crunchy topping) and the Kernel Brewery stout and dark muscovado (which was out-of-this-world delicious; who would ever have thought that I’d be choosing a beer-based chocolate as my top choice of the day?)
I grabbed a few moments of Paul’s time for an impromptu interview. As always, no preparation in advance, so forgive me if the questions are a little disjointed. And, what can I say, I’m not a very steady camera woman!
Although we were given some samples to take away, I could not resist buying a couple of the Kernel Brewery stout and dark muscovado chocolates Pete and I both loved best.
To my delight, this resulted in my being the very first paying customer in the store, how cool is that? Well, I think it is, anyway!
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.
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!
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.
We ate in the hotel restaurant on 2 consecutive nights.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?!
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.
I grew up in the culinary wastelands of Luton. My love of good food came from my parents and family friends. Not only did mum teach herself to cook dishes from around the world, we also encountered all kinds of new tastes and techniques whilst travelling overseas during the holidays. My dad enjoyed eating out so we went to restaurants from a young age, most often a simple steak house chain and a fantastic local Chinese (which I still miss since it closed a few years ago).
Of course, Indian food featured regularly too. Mum most commonly cooked dishes from Northern India where she and my dad grew up. She had learned some as she grew up but taught herself many more, gleaning recipes from family members still in India and local Indian friends too.
Just around the corner from us lived my “Auntie” Krishna who, to my sister and I, isolated from our blood family in India, was much more than ‘just’ a family friend. Her mother, who we called “Nani” (Grandmother) Maya, would visit from India for months at a time, like my own grandmothers did. Nani Maya was from Kolkata and taught mum many dishes from her regional repertoire.
Food was something that drew our families (plus a few other local friends) together – many happy moments were spent cooking and eating together in one or other nearby houses.
One day Auntie Krishna arranged for us to go to London to visit a high end Indian restaurant that had opened a couple of years earlier. A cousin or uncle of hers was a regular visitor there and wanted to take us all to visit. That restaurant was The Bombay Brasserie.
More than 25 years later, I still remember the high glass ceilings of the conservatory, the greenery around the room, the elegant days-of-the-Raj interior and the attentive service. Back then, a restaurant serving authentic dishes from different regions in India was a huge contrast to the more common flock wallpapered curry house.
Of course, The Bombay Brasserie was of it’s time. It opened the same year that Gandhi was released. Our visit, two years later, coincided with both The Jewel in the Crown and Passage to India (the film). India was all the rage!
All I recall about the food is that, whilst everyone agreed it was tasty good, it was really, really, really hot! The visit was a big treat – we went out to restaurants regularly but Luton certainly had nothing to compare to this kind of establishment – hence it sticking in my memory.
Fast forward to 2010 and I received an invitation to visit Bombay Brasserie to review.
Of course, I couldn’t resist going back after two and a half decades. Would I recognise the place? Would the food and service be as good as my teenage memories? How had Bombay Brasserie evolved in the face of increasing awareness and interest in authentic regional Indian cuisine and stiffer competition from the new kids on the block?
I didn’t recognise the main dining area but once we walked into the rounded conservatory area, the déjà vu hit me. The furniture is lighter and more modern and there’s less greenery than I remember, but the sloped wooden and glass ceiling is unchanged.
The conservatory part of the restaurant is most familiar, though lighter and more modern
The main dining area is more traditional with a huge chandelier hanging below the high, elegantly corniced ceiling and a glorious round glass window at one end (which has lights installed to give different colours). Although it’s grand, it’s not as unusual as the conservatory and somehow has a bit of a posh but dated hotel feel about it.
Both are comfortable places to sit, but I’d choose the conservatory, especially for a day time visit.
That said, I do wish they hadn’t reduced the flora so much; I rather liked that slightly jungle feel about it, though perhaps I’m misremembering!
The main dining room, Chef Hegde
Before lunch, we’d arranged to meet and talk to Executive Chef, Prahlad Hegde who joined The Bombay Brasserie as a sous chef in 1991 and now heads up the restaurant team. He works in partnership with Hemant Oberoi who is the Executive Chef for the entire Taj Group, and visits this London outpost once or twice a year to work on menu development with Hedge. I was disappointed to miss an opportunity to meet Chef Oberoi during his recent visit, but very happy to chat to Chef Hegde who is responsible for the restaurant on a daily basis.
This mural was originally in the main dining room but was moved into the conservatory during last year’s refurbishment
We made a short video of part of our chat with Chef Prahlad Hegde:
Before lunch we ordered a drink to enjoy in the entrance bar area.
Drinks and snacks in the bar area
I ordered a Blackberry cocktail from a section of the bar drinks menu called “Smashes”, which I really enjoyed. Pete’s Cappuccino Martini, on the other hand, was very poor, lacking almost completely in flavour and with virtually no alcohol kick whatsoever. It tasted mostly of cream.
With the cocktails were served some perfectly spiced and salted roasted almonds and some very moreish spicy orange crisps.
Time for lunch!
First out was a plate of crudités and fried snacks with a lightly spiced tomato dip.
Having looked at the menu and spoken to Chef Hegde, we mentioned a couple of dishes we particularly wanted to try and left the rest of the selection to him. For starters, he sent out a mixed plate so we could try a number of the most popular starters.
Selection of starters
Chicken tikka ‘doodha’ was firm but tender with a surprising smokiness and wonderful blend of spices. It wasn’t as soft as the Delhi Grill chicken tikka but soft enough, and the flavour really was wonderful.
The Curry leaf scallops on peppered crab were also a hit. Even with Pete, who would not normally eat scallops or crab let alone find anything positive to say about them. The scallop was subtly spiced and perfectly cooked. The peppered crab was incredible, somehow delivering some fairly robust spicing without overwhelming the sweet flavour of the crab, which came through very clearly.
Ganderi seekh (lamb kebabs on sugarcane sticks) were served in little shot glasses of green coriander and mint chutney. They were soft and moist, though the wet chutney made the crumbed exterior a bit soggy. Although I liked the release of sweet juice as I crunched down on the sugarcane, the flavours in the kebab didn’t wow me.
But that’s OK because the palak pakodi chaat blew me away. Thin leaves of spinach (palak) were deep fried in a very light gram flour batter to make unusually light pakora (as I know them in Hindi) , or pakodi (as they are called by Telegu speakers). These battered spinach leaves provided the crunchy element of the chaat (more commonly provided by fried bread or pastry) against the natural yoghurt, coriander, tamarind chutney, raw red onions and tomatoes and chaatmasala (spices). It was a heavenly dish and a lunch of nothing more than an immense bowl of this palak pakodi chaat would make me a very happy Kavey indeed!
Selection of mains
I resisted begging for more palak pakodi chaat and we went onto the mains.
The Chilean seabass on spinach and mushroom was decent. Again, the fish was beautifully cooked and nicely spiced. The soft spinach beneath was a good match.
The Dum ki nalli was impressive. Delivered in one piece to the table, the slow cooked lamb shank in saffron curry was then slipped off the bone at the table to make for easier serving. Whilst I couldn’t detect the distinct bitter muddiness of the saffron, I did think the spicing delicious and the lamb itself very tender. And how lovely to get a decent serving of the gravy, all the better to dip the lovely lightly scorched naan bread and flaky-layered laccha paratha into!
Aloo katliyan didn’t appeal at all. The spiced potato slices were undercooked hard and the flavours too bitter for our tastes.
We also had a mint and cucumber raita; a decent side, but the natural yoghurt is not as flavoursome as the home-made stuff they have at Quilon.
I loved the fresh sugarcane juice soft drink I ordered, though it was a touch heavy on the ginger for my tastes. The sweet earthy taste worked well against the spicy mains.
After our mains tiny dishes with a solid white tablet in them were brought to the table. I cannot describe them better than Marina O’Loughlin in her review of a year and a half ago:
What looks like a large indigestion tablet arrives, tumescing into a meringuey tube as the waiter baptises it with boiling water. I wonder how many people have attempted to eat this hot towel?
Still, they amused me greatly. It doesn’t take much!
Dessert was disappointing. The malai kulfi was actually good, though it didn’t really match well with the crispy pastry case in which it was served. The ginger brioche and butter pudding was a let down. Lacking in flavour and collapsed sadly into it’s ramekin, it wasn’t a good ending.
So, what’s the low down?
I quite like Terry Durack’s comment: “Not only does [Bombay Brasserie] have a grand sense of space, it has an equally grand sense of time.” There’s certainly a sense of longevity and tradition, aided by the black and white photographs of Indian maharajah’s and British colonials that adorn the walls in the bar area. A visit does have a sense of occasion, though atmosphere is somewhat let down by the lack of fellow diners on a weekday lunch time!
My biggest problem is the price. Starters range from £5 to £11.50, with most of them around the £9-£10 mark. Mains are between £18.50 and £30 each plus extra for the various side vegetables, breads, rices and raita. Desserts are £6.50.
Rowan Moore said “It made me feel more slumdog than millionaire” and he has a very good point.
With so many great alternatives for fantastic Indian food in London, those are hefty prices and one senses that one is paying a large part of that for the rarefied atmosphere and decor – A Saudi prince made a last minute dinner booking for a large party just the night before our visit and I can’t imagine him taking his guests along to the more everyman Delhi Grill or Dishoom!
You can also see from my review that I absolutely loved the starters, enjoyed the mains well enough and didn’t think much of the desserts, so it’s a little hit and miss. And for these prices, it needs to be hit and hit!
That said, there are less expensive options. A weekday lunch tiffin is priced at £22 per person and includes small servings of a couple of starters, a selection of mains with rice and naan, dessert and tea or coffee. Served in a modern take on a tiffin box, portions are just right for a working day lunch.
However, my next visit shall be for the weekend lunch buffet. Also priced at £22 a head and available between 12 and 3 on Saturdays and Sundays, this is a great way to enjoy many of the restaurants classic dishes without a bill of royal proportions. Since Chef Hegde assures me the buffet includes the palak pakodi chaat, I’m there!
There is no greater compliment I can give about North Indian food than that it matches my mum’s home cooking. So it’s not an accolade I give lightly.
It is one I give to Delhi Grill having finally made my way to this new Chapel Market Indian restaurant in Angel Islington last month.
May it be the first visit of many. Many, many.
Based on a traditional Indian dhaba – a casual canteen or restaurant stop serving tasty, inexpensive local dishes to a really wide range of clientele, from truckers and rickshaw-wallahs to suits from nearby offices – Delhi Grill doesn’t follow the usual British curry house propensity for long, long menus. Instead it offers a short, balanced range of traditionally cooked dishes, many cooked long and slow after overnight marinating.
In addition, during lunch times and and on Sundays (when the Chapel Market Farmers Market is on) you can buy freshly made wraps and lassis from the Delhi Grill market stall set up in the street outside the restaurant.
(The stall has been winning over customers since May, the restaurant opened mid-September).
Delhi Grill is a proper family business. Brothers Aman and Preet Grewal wanted to create a down-to-earth restaurant serving the kind of food Indians cook and eat at home. Recipe development is lead by Preet’s wife, Satpal who has drawn heavily on family recipes from parents, aunts and cousins. The three together have spent many hours tweaking each recipe and continue to review dishes regularly.
Also vital to the team is Ashik, restaurant manager, who ensures that the stall and restaurant are running smoothly while Aman, Preet and Satpal look after the recipes and work behind the scenes. In the kitchen, chefs Ashraf and Shamshu make sure that the dishes sent out are exactly as they should be according to Satpi’s final recipes.
The menu is short and sweet (though with plenty enough to tempt) and we’re quickly ready to order.
Pete drinks a large Bangla (£3.75) from the range of Indian beers, most available in small and larger bottles. A strong, simple lager designed to compliment Indian food, it does the job.
I can’t resist the lassi (£2). It’s lovely – light, frothy and a proper natural yoghurt flavour. It’s very much like what I whizz up at home and perfect with the food to come.
Delhi Grill; condiments
We start with the Delhi Grill (£6.50). Four chicken tikka pieces, two lamb chops and two sheekh kebabs piled over sizzling onions are served alongside three condiments: a coriander chutney, beetroot and garlic and one other.
The chicken tikka is the first surprise. Typically, this is a dish I feel so-so about. It’s chicken. It’s been marinated. It’s been grilled. It has no sauce and is often a bit dry. But this is quite a revelation, mostly because of how very juicy it is. Moist spicy chicken goodness; definitely one we both love.
The sheekh kebabs impress too because they taste just like my mum’s. And I love my mum’s home made kebabs! Gently spiced, a traditional texture (though I also have a soft spot for the very finely minced Dishoom version) and as moist as the chicken tikka, these are really rather good and disappear far too quickly. I could eat a lot of these.
The lamb chops are good but don’t wow me as much as the other two grill dishes. They have been slow cooked, cooled and then marinated before being grilled so there’s no juicy pink inside, though they are reasonably tender. But the main issue for me is my addiction to chargrilled lamb chop fat and these chops don’t give me any! Perfectly nice but their plate mates win the day.
Oh and I mustn’t fail to mention the onions. I think of these as mere garnish but the onions on the platter are so tasty we eat every last piece.
rogan gosht; cholay; matter paneer
For our mains we choose rogan gosht (£6.95), cholay (£3.95) and matter paneer (from the specials board, £5.95) plus a naan (£1.50) and a raita (£1.50) and a couple of rotis (£1 each).
The rogan gosht (lamb curry) consists of tender, juicy pieces of lamb (no cheap, gristly cuts in sight) in a rich, deftly spiced tomato sauce. The traditional recipe and slow cooking really shine through. I really like this.
The cholay (chickpea curry) is another dish that is just like mum’s. Unlike many Indian restaurants, the spicing is completely different from the lamb curry. The chick peas are cooked as I like them; the balance between soft and firm is just right. For me this and a pile of freshly cooked rotis is the next best thing to going home to mum.
Yet again, the matter paneer (cheesy peas, as I’ve heard it called) has it’s own blend of spices and is distinct from the other two dishes. This time the recipe is quite different from mum’s, though it’s clearly still a Northern Indian family recipe. I love the firm cubes of fried paneer and slippery peas. This one is Pete’s favourite.
roti being made; roti
One thing I really appreciate is the freshly cooked rotis. During our meal we watch roti-wallah, Gautam, roll and cook them for us and other tables. When the restaurant is packed, I’m told that the main kitchen also gets roti-making to meet demand. For me, they could do with a little more browning but taste, texture and thickness is spot on.
The naan isn’t bad either though my personal taste is for it to be a touch thicker. It’s decent but I’m won over by the rotis, delivered piping hot as they’re made.
Raita is a simple dish – natural yoghurt, cucumber and a light sprinkling of spices. It goes well with the rest of our order and balances the chilli heat of the dishes.
After all that, we are far too full for pudding; in fact we take away leftovers for the next day as we can’t even finish what we’ve ordered!
Our bill is just under £30 before service (though the rotis were being offered to guests to try during our visit so the four we had would normally add another £4 to the bill). I think this is a great deal in London and just wish Delhi Grill were my local Indian restaurant!
After our meal we take the opportunity to chat to owner Aman. You can watch my impromptu interview here. I didn’t plan to do an interview, so I didn’t prepare any questions – these are a little spur-of-the-moment. Not too incoherent, I hope!
Back in May, we spent a lovely long weekend in Dorset for Pete’s birthday.
As the visit was all about great local food, I was keen to visit local producers and learn about their products, their history, their processes and not least, the people.
George and Amanda Streatfeild of Denhay Farm were kind enough to respond to my somewhat last-minute pre-trip email with an invitation to visit and learn about their traditional farmhouse cheddars and dry cured bacons.
Raw milk tanks; Pete and George
We started off chatting to the Streadfeilds in George’s little office, where we learned about the history, the challenges and the current production processes of Denhay cheeses and bacons before a visit into the cheese production areas, including the maturation room where large and small truckles are kept at just the right temperature and humidity.
The Streatfeilds produce cheddar in three forms – traditional 27 kg truckles, smaller 2 kg rounds called Dorset Drums and 20 kg blocks. The milk comes from their own cows, which are Freedom Food accredited by the RSPCA.
Truckles and Dorset Drums; George turning the cheeses
We were delighted to be able to try some of the cheese on site, as George extracted a shiny, yellow cylinder with his cheese iron, to test one of the maturing truckles and Amanda cut a slice off one of the blocks too.
Amanda preparing a tasting
The cheese is a delicious, traditional, nutty cheddar – properly savoury without the European-style sweetness creeping into many cheddars. For me, it’s a touch mild, but I do have a tendency towards ridiculously strong cheese!
Checking on the cheeses
Waitrose buy most of it and sell it under their own brand West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, but some is sold (under the Denhay name and also their SpoiltCow label) to other supermarkets, independent retailers and even exported to America and Europe.
When we left, we’re given some of their dry cured bacon to try. This is available in many supermarkets as either Denhay or SpoiltPig.
The cheese is good.
The bacon is magnificent!
Such a perfect texture and flavour, in fact, that we’ve become quite addicted to it, buying ourselves at least a pack a week. We have it grilled and crispy for breakfast or stuffed inside bread for the perfect bacon sandwich and we use it in cooking too – most recently, a delicious courgette carbonara using courgettes from the garden.
Denhay cheese soufflé with Denhay bacon
Below, you’ll find a long but fascinating interview with the Streatfeilds, followed by a few video clip interviews and tasting sessions inside and outside the factory areas.
Key: George Amanda Me
We started farming here in 1952 and we started milking cows in 1953 when we realised that this part of the world grows grass. If you grow grass, the one thing you should do is turn it into milk as that’s more profitable than turning it into beef and sheep. That’s the traditional view.
And it’s a very traditional dairy area. There are a lot of small dairies still, in this vale.
In those days (’54, ‘55) we had 3 dairies of 50 cows each – people came from all over the country to see one man milk 50 cows by himself, “couldn’t be done by himself, not possible!”
So we’ve grown from that base. The first big change was in 1959 when we started making farmhouse cheddar. We used milk from our cows and we bought in from neighbouring farms and we made 7 days a week and we made 400 pounds a day. And it dominated our lives.
Where you’re in here is the Marshwood Vale.
Historically there’s no water in the vale so the herds were only 4 or 5 cows at the most. And there was a history of neighbour warfare because the neighbours who had the springs on the hillside dammed them up for their cows. At night and the other neighbours, who didn’t have water, would come up and break the dams…
The main products from the Marsh of Vale were eggs and butter. The farmers would go from the vale to Bridport or Axminster to sell their eggs and butter. The result of that is that they had a lot of skimmed milk, which they made into Blue Vinney. This was one of the areas where it originated.
Now the original Blue Vinney is a horrid cheese. Very dry… very royal blue blue and because it was properly skimmed milk, albeit it by hand, it didn’t have a lot of flavour, because It’s the fat that gives you flavour.
Moving to beef, why people whinge about no flavour in beef is coz it’s too lean.
And why as a bacon producer I’d always eat streaky bacon because that’s got the flavour in it.
So anyway, we started making cheddar in 1959.
How did they learn to make cheese, your parents?
Oh my old man never actually made the cheese, he employed a cheese maker!
He employed Ken who was with us until 1982/83.
We’ve only ever had 3 cheese makers, we’re on our 3rd cheese maker at the moment,
The answer is that you seek advice from other cheese makers; the cheese making fraternity is very good at helping each other even though we’re competitors in other ways. So he had a lot of help from other farmers and a lot of encouragement.
In those days it was very easy because you sold your milk to the milk board and were paid on the 20th of the month following production. You bought it back from the milk board and turned it into cheddar but you only had to pay for it five months later. You had 5 months free credit. Brilliant! A lot of big farmhouse cheese makers built their whole lives on that credit so when that credit stopped, when the milk board ended, it was very painful for them.
So that’s how it started.
And at the same time as that we put in the piggery because when you make cheese you’ve got whey, which is the watery liquid leftover from cheese making, and that’s what we feed our pigs, whey and barley meal.
We grew and grew and grew and at our peak we had about 750 sows and we were making about the same volume as we are now, probably about 2 vats a day 6 days a week, a vat is a tonne… so that’s…
No we’re really small, one of the smaller makers.
We got out of pigs 8 years ago – we lost a shed load of money on pigs – pigs do that, if you’re an economist you know they go up and down,
I’ve heard that but I don’t know why they go up and down? Why is that?
Very easy, the traditional reason is that when pigs are on the floor, the big barley farmers then don’t sell their barley they turn it into pig meat, because that’s more profitable. The more pigs are profitable the more and more pigs get produced, and then they get to a point where suddenly there are too many pigs and it all crashes. If you ever studied economics it was a regular 3 year pig cycle and a 10 year blackcurrant cycle … same thing…
There were probably four good reasons why we got out of pigs, profitability being the very big one. The second one was that our buildings were very old and inefficient and really you’ve got to have efficient buildings. The third reason was that, because of the change in legislation – which is quite right and reasonable, I’m not attacking it in anyway – to have cows and pigs on the same block of land is too many livestocks. If you’ve got a pig farmer in East Anglia with arable land, it’s not a problem, but here with dairy… we were going to fall foul of everything.
The fourth reason and probably the one that to me was the most driving reason is that we were developing the Denhay brand on the bacon side (as well as the cheese side) and it was very clear that that the consumer perception of premium brands is high welfare and the consumer perception of high welfare with pigs is pigs outside. Now, today [a gloriously sunny day] it would be lovely – the pigs would be very happy outside! But you can’t keep pigs outside in West Dorset. We get 36 inches of rain on very heavy clay. Go and do it on the Thetford Sounds with 24 inches of rain and the sand is so dry you can drive on it – here you can’t drive a car after an inch of rain. So, the wrong part of the world.
But we started curing bacon in 1994 (after the air dried ham in 1989) and we reckon we’re pretty good at curing bacon, so we continue to cure bacon. But we now source all British outdoor reared pork from around the country. Some comes from Devon… some comes from Gloucestershire… some comes from Norfolk… some comes from Scotland…
I take it those pig producers have no interest in doing that to the meat themselves?
No, most pig farmers are pig farmers and that’s the end of the argument.
The disadvantage we have is that we are only interested in backs and bellies. The big problem with British livestock farming (and this will keep you blogging for generations, this) is using the carcass in balance. Anybody can use a back and a belly – what are you going to do with the legs?
Oooh gammons, when do you buy gammons, when do you eat gammons? Christmas! Thank you, I rest my case! You try and sell a gammon at this time of year, a hopeless task, don’t know why, a fabulous product… We do a stunningly good gammon but we can’t sell it except for Christmas when we can’t make enough!
And shoulders, what do you do with shoulders? Make sausages… and… sausages…
So what we do is we buy from abattoirs. No good us making a relationship with the pig farmer, because they want to sell the whole pig. So we make relationships with abattoirs and we buy the bits we want…
I guess then that means you have to make sure your product is premium to offset the fact that you’re now paying more for the pig parts than you would if you farmed them?
You’re absolutely right, that’s absolutely smack on. And so premium is what we do, so we’re outdoor reared, we’re Freedom Foods accredited…
What does that mean, Freedom Foods accredited?
The RSPCA have a Freedom Food scheme and it’s based upon the five freedoms, if I can remember them all – freedom from thirst, freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, freedom from cold and freedom to express their natural tendencies…
[The five freedoms as more fully defined by the RSPCA as freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury and disease, freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress.]
And so to be Freedom Food accredited doesn’t imply it’s outdoor reared so we have to tie the two together.
But, for example our cows are all Freedom Food accredited so the RSPCA come 2 or 3 times a year and look around. It means, if I say to you, “we look after our cows well”, you know it’s independently checked rather than me just saying it. And it’s something that Waitrose require us to do, too.
Yeah it’s one of the things I love about Waitrose actually is they’ve been looking at that for so much longer than everyone else, it’s great that everyone else is now interested but they’ve been doing it for a long time…
It’s second nature for them!
Anyway to come back to cheese, we were all traditional – that’s with the cloth bound – until 1984 when we realised we were a very large fish in an extremely small pond and the air was getting rarefied so we changed and we now make 12 vats a week of which 11 are block and one vat is traditional.
I don’t know much about cheddar so tell me what that means…
The difference is that a traditional cheddar has a rind on, is round and weighs 27 kilos. A block cheese is rectangular, weighs 20 kilos and doesn’t have any rind. I’ll show you the difference later…
And so we made that change and that block cheese is what you mostly buy in Waitrose as pre-packed cheese.
The majority of cheese you buy will be cheddar in the UK.
So that’s still our favourite cheese?
I wouldn’t say it’s our favourite cheese but it’s the one that most people use. If you’re making sandwiches, you’ll use cheddar, if you’re cooking you’ll use cheddar, unless the recipe calls for something different…
And so that is the bog-standard line.
The problem we face – We’re going through a very very difficult phase at the moment – is how people decide which cheddar to buy.
[We ramble a bit here, but essentially, George tells me that many consumers choose based on price, promotional offers and packaging, with very little understanding of the differences in styles of different cheddars.]
The problem we face is that farmhouse makers are making a different style of cheese to the majority of cheddar now available. If you compare our cheese to the market leaders (Davidstow, Pilgrim’s Choice, Cathedral City, Seriously Strong…) they are two totally different styles. And I’m not knocking Davidstow, it’s a really very good cheese… The market leaders are all very European in style, they’re quite sweet – if you ate one you wouldn’t say sweet, but it’s that kind of Emmental flavour. Whereas the traditional farmhouse flavour is much more savoury flavour.
[George is also frustrated by the way that some cheddar retailers, making cheeses in this newer, sweeter, European style are marketing their cheese with slogans about it tasting “how cheese used to taste 50 years ago”, which is completely inaccurate.
I agree to the suggestion that I should do a blind tasting of a few different cheddars, including some traditional farmhouse cheddars and some of the modern market leader brands, though I haven’t done this yet!
We move on to talk about PDOs]
Cheddar is something I’ve never ever paid that much attention to. I always thought though that you couldn’t change the style of it that easily because they were protected, is cheddar just not protected in that way?
Well West Country Farmhouse Cheddar is protected…
The generic term cheddar isn’t then?
Generic cheddar definitely isn’t but West Country Farnhouse cheddar is. But there are still things you can change. The weakness of the PDO scheme is that it’s only as good as how it was written/agreed in the first place. Cheddar was actually one of the earlier PDOs and it was fairly weakly written and so you can produce a whole raft of different cheese under the PDO. It has a value but not as big a value as it should have.
[I talk about the Stilton PDO and the Stichelton story, which is the only example I know – the Stilton PDO was nailed down to specify a pasteurised cheese, even though that was, at the time the PDO was created, a fairly recent development and the traditional recipe had always been unpasteurised. When a new kid on the block came along wanting to make a traditional unpasteurised Stilton, they were forced by the PDO to call it something else, and Stichelton was born. We agree though, that in retrospect, this did them a huge favour, from a marketing perspective.]
A PDO is only as good as the rules that were written at the time.
It sounds like whoever is big and successful at the time is the one that gets to pin down the PDO to what they want it to be?
That’s probably fair!
So what are you doing to address this, because that’s quite a challenging thing to deal with really?
We’re scratching our head about it! It’s only in the last 6 months that it’s really become very evident and that’s because so much cheese has been sold on promotion.
[We then ramble a while about bacon, and which brands Pete and I have noticed/ bought from our Waitrose.]
There will be at least three or four Denhay bacon products on the top shelf and then there’ll be Duchy Originals and that’s us too.
Really, that’s you?
We’ve done Duchy Originals bacon since 1999.
I assumed it was done somewhere in his estates, I had thought it was farms that he owned. Interesting! So what’s the difference then between the Duchy Originals bacon and the one that’s branded Denhay?
Well it’s the cure, they wanted to do a different cure.
And they’re organic and we’re not.
Are the pigs theirs?
Not necessarily… and in future won’t be.
OK, so it really is a brand for them more than anything, they can control the quality?
Yes, it’s a brand that delivers quite a lot of money into The Prince’s Charities Foundation and it’s a brand which the Prince is very passionate about and watches and manages in terms of quality control and what products go in, what don’t go in.
As of the middle of June it’s going to be Dutchy Originals from Waitrose and it’ll only be available from Waitrose.
[We talk about how we shop for bacon, and how oblivious we are to the different packaging and information printed on the packaging and how consumers often don’t read or notice anything other than what they are already familiar with.
The conversation moves on to Waitrose, and I talk about how I like shopping in Waitrose not only because of the quality but also because they have always had much more of a commitment to looking after their producers.]
Again, that’s what we always read in the press, that Waitrose look after their producers, do you feel that or not?
They are very good, very good indeed.
Is it a marked difference from the rest of them?
We’ve dealt with Waitrose, supplied to them for 25 years.
Another thing I like about waitrose is how they say that if they find a producer that can only produce enough for three stores, if they like it they’ll still take it and put it into three stores. I don’t know how much they do this but I do see a difference in products stocked in different stores.
That’s correct, for instance you can buy our butter in only three Waitrose stores I think it is. And at Ocado.
[At this point, we don white coats and go to visit the cheese producing and storage areas.]
— with many thanks to Jow Lloyd for her help transcribing the audio file —
(Please forgive quality of sound and image composition – these videos were taken purely to give me an audio file for transcription, as above, but decided to share the videos instead. Pete’s actually really good at shooting video when he knows it’s going to be used as video! And ignore how daft I look in my orange hat and white lab coat, please!)
Pasteurisation, Homogenisation, Sterilisation
Grading the cheese
Truckles and Dorset Drums
(no idea why this one is a different size ratio, it’s from the same video footage, same settings but when I export it to youtube it loads differently to the other 5)
Books on growing your own fruit and vegetables seem to be ten a penny at the moment, as publishers leap onto the latest bandwagon, keen to milk the home farming phenomenon. Often dull and weighty tomes, they add little to the existing excellent literature already available.
Celia Brook Brown’s New Urban Farmer makes a refreshing change, steering clear of the temptation to reinvent the wheel and offering instead a well-balanced mix of engaging, personal narrative about her own urban farming awakening, lots of easy-to-digest practical advice and a selection of recipes for the resulting tasty fresh produce too.
For me, it’s a joy to read because it echoes what we have found (my husband and I) and much of how we have felt during our own urban farming journey.
We started growing vegetables in our back garden, gosh it must be over ten years ago now. Gradually, year on year, we’d grow more and more different kinds of vegetables and more and more volume until we finally decided to convert the whole of our back garden into what should rightly be called a kitchen garden, but I more commonly think of as a home allotment. A few years back we even invested in a beautiful big greenhouse and new shed; very exciting! And this year we’ve finally introduced some fruit with a new apple tree, some raspberry canes, wild strawberries and a rhubarb plant. Whilst we do have a few fruit and vegetable gardening bibles, which are invaluable reference, we’ve learned a great deal by trial and error plus lots of welcome advice from more experienced friends and family.
And both of us have strong memories of helping green-fingered parents. Pete’s dad worked hard on his allotment and produced a good part of the (large) family’s diet, roping the kids in to help with many of the gardening chores. My mum loves gardening and I have vivid recollections of the little plots she assigned to my sister and I, in which we grew whatever flowers and vegetables we wanted, arranged in our own haphazard designs. Her garden today, even in winter, is an oasis of greenery, enlivened by riotous colour and scent during the warmer months. And, to my envy (no question in my mind as to why the colour of envy is green!) she can grow coriander; something I just can’t seem to keep alive!
The beauty of growing your own fruit and vegetables is that you can do as much or little as you wish. Whether it’s growing a few tomato plants and herbs in a window box or in a few pots in the garden or giving over a small patch of an otherwise leisure-focused garden to tomatoes, beans, strawberries and lettuces or going the whole hog and getting an allotment (or converting the entire garden as we have done) – it’s hugely satisfying and addictive to eat what you have sown, nurtured and brought to fruition.
And with her injection of personal experiences – she has clearly learned by trial and error, success and failure – Celia makes it clear that urban farming is not only possible but readily achievable for anyone who wants to give it a go. As she points out in her introduction, roughly half the population of the earth are city-dwellers. Urban farming not only provides us access to the freshest possible produce, it also gives us the chance to reconnect to nature and improve the quality of our lives.
Celia catching up at the allotment after a couple of months away
Keen to meet with Celia in person and talk more about her urban farming experiences, I met her at her allotment on a very, very, very hot and sunny day, where I filmed a short interview. As you’ll see, I’m an appalling interviewer and an even less skilled cameraman (so used to shooting stills that I forgot not to turn the little point and shoot I used into portrait orientation) but I hope the videos will still be of interest. Apologies for the strange semi-black-and-white effect in the last video – I managed to switch into some odd mode and couldn’t work out how to switch out of it!
In the Introduction, Celia tells us how she came to have an allotment before going on to share vegetable plot basics from location to tools to composting to protection to hardening off and more. There are tips on growing in an allotment, a home garden and in containers. And then the book is presented in monthly chapters, running through what needs to be done when, and the many tips Celia has learned along the way.
Even as an experienced vegetable gardener, there were plenty of useful tips for me – from using the spring shoots of winter brassicas to growing only one variety of sweet corn (cross pollination of more than one leads to ill-formed kernels) to using old, tough leeks to make a leek stock to enjoying bolting rocket flowers in salads to keeping supermarket herbs alive longer by gently separating the numerous plants crammed into the tiny container… each page had me scribbling notes to myself.
And there were also many tips which had me shaking my head in agreement – we too use takeaway containers (plus foil catering trays rescued from party events and the plastic punnets in which we buy strawberries and mushrooms) as seed trays; we’ve had huge success sprinkling broken egg shells around plants to create a physical barrier against slugs and snails; we also like to plant marigolds and nasturtiums as companion plants and we also leave a little patch of wild flowering weeds, all of which attract pollinating insects.
Lastly, there are the recipes – Celia is an experienced food writer and cook and shares many of her favourite ways to use her allotment bounty. I’m looking forward to trying pea and feta egg cups, parmesan potato cakes with summer herbs, warm courgette salad with parmesan crackling and apple and thyme tart with boozy toffee, amongst many others!
Although it’s June now, by the time I’m posting this, I would still recommend you pick up a copy of this if you’d like encouragement, inspiration and a final push to join the ranks of urban farmers. There are still fruit and vegetables you can grow this year if you’re quick, and you can certainly start planning and preparing for next year already!
Many thanks to Quadrille for my review copy and to Celia Brooks Brown for welcoming me to her allotment (and for her gift of rocket seeds).
New Urban Farmer by Celia Brook Brown is currently available from Amazon for just £8.24 (normal cover price £14.99).