Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Time for curry

With the early-season snow having finally started descending on London overnight, the question of dinner reared its head over lunchtime coffee, under the awning and heater of the pub opposite work.

The trouble is that The Other Half wants to do the northern European bit even more than me. I'm all for comfort – indeed, I was mulling over the idea of a velouté sauce with poached smoked haddock and mushrooms, to be served with pasta.

To me, that sounds warming, soothing and comforting. To The Other Half, it apparently doesn't. With hefty snowdrops swirling their way onto the table, he declared emphatically that pasta is "a southern food" and he's a northern boy needing northern food.

With BBC4 having got their German season underway yesterday, I'm tempted to finish the current jar of sauerkraut – but what with? Bratwurst or franks? Don’t get me wrong, I love such things, but we had sausages last night and I do like to avoid eating meat every day.

So just what can I get away with that avoids meat but is considered suitably warming by The Other Half? What about curry – a vegetable curry?

I've never been a particular curry hound – although these days, we live within walking distance of Brick Lane.

Mind, that I eat any hot or spicy foods at all is progress, given my upbringing.

As I've mentioned before, I have no memories of my mother using spices in her food, aside from Christmas puddings and cakes, and bought hot cross buns at Easter. Spices, it seems, were for religious occasions only.

And as for heat …

I didn't eat anything hot until I was 19 and about to go to polytechnic.

It was early 1982. We lived in Lancaster at the time, and a parishoner of my father's, who’d worked in the theatre and taken me under his wing, took me down to the Royal Exchange Manchester to see Sophocles's Philoctetes, starring Robert Lindsay.

It's worth pointing out at this stage that, when I say he'd "taken me under his wing", it was entirely that. Apparently my mother was convinced otherwise and, years later, my father (who has always loved such opportunities to attempt to play divide and rule) told me that she'd read my diaries to see if there was some sort of affair going on. There are times with my parents when it's difficult to know which of them I most want to smack.

And besides, she must have been the only person around that didn’t realise that Robert was gay.

But anyway. There we were at the Royal Exchange with Robert treating me to a meal before the performance. In a fit of culinary experimentation that I'd never had the chance to exercise previously, I opted for some curry.

I would say that it blew me away. In reality, it just nearly blew my mouth into oblivion.

In retrospect, I have no idea whether it really was hot or not – or whether it was simply a matter of a first encounter with chili was always going to have a massive effect after a lifetime of relatively bland food.

I couldn't eat much of it – but enough to leave me nursing a burnt mouth for days after. And I didn’t touch curry – or any other hot dishes – for years.

Once ensconced in London, I'd eat the occasional korma if out with friends, but it was only in recent years that I dared to start using chilies in my own cooking.

I have also done the thing of toasting the spices myself – but on a midweek evening, it's always going to be paste from a jar. And yes, it's still korma.

Onion softened, then plenty of curry paste. Add chopped butternut squash, parsnip, carrot, a tin of chopped tomatoes and some water, cover and simmer until the vegetables are cooked. Serve with rice.

It's not a 'proper' curry and it's hardly ambitious cooking, but it's hearty and really quite healthy.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Lancashire hotpot: a culinary treasure

It probably seems the most ridiculous link in culinary history, but in preparing to cook the first Lancashire hotpot of the season yesterday, Gordon Ramsay's name entered the equation.

'Gordon Ramsay?' you query, eyebrow rising à la Roger Moore. ‘And a Lancashire hotpot?'

Now stop looking like that – it was all for quite a good reason.

Rick Stein once opined that, were this France, hotpot would be a nationally hailed dish – and the French would seem to agree.

It even merits an individual mention in Larousse, where it’s described as "a classic British dish". There’s a second individual entry for the county in this bible of gastronomy, the other being "delicious" Lancashire cheese, plus a mention of hotpot and another Lancashire dish, Hindle Wakes, in the 'England' section, together with mentions in the 'Great Britain' section.

Yorkshire merits a solitary specific mention for the famous pudding, and nowhere near as many mentions in the GB and England sections.

You see – even on a culinary front, the Wars of the Roses went the way of the red rose.

Tragically – but perhaps unsurprisingly – a 2008 survey from Tesco revealed hotpot as being one of 10 traditional British dishes that were dying out.

The same Telegraph article also reported that high street butchers were dying at the rate of 23 a month. Not that the likes of Tesco has in any way affected that depressing statistic.

The rest of this sad list of endangered dishes was made up of spotted dick, beef Wellington, jam roly-poly, steak and kidney pie, coronation chicken (which hasn’t even been around very long), sherry trifle, bread and butter pudding, toad in the hole and fish pie.

That survey was almost three years ago: it's to be hoped that gastro pubs are increasingly keeping alive such cuisine, because there's a few classy dishes in that list that really do not deserve to go the way of all flesh.

I don't recall my mother ever cooking a hotpot – it may have happened, but it's not something that springs readily to mind when thinking of food in my childhood.

Indeed, when I start to think about it, I don't really remember there being much in the way of casserole dishes in her repertoire.

She used to make a stew occasionally – I remember little about it, except that we'd have slices of white bread to mop up the juices.

The recipe I've always used for hotpot comes from Catherine Rothwell's Lancashire Cookbook, a volume that George gave me some years ago.

For the meat, it specifies lamb chops, which work fine. But in somewhat more ambitious mode last week, I decided to see what would have been a more traditional cut.

Even with Google, this wasn’t quite as obvious as one might imagine. But then I came across not one but two recipes from the shouty one in the Times.

Both had been published within four months of each other – 14 June 2007 and 3 Oct 2007 – and both had Ramsay saying that they were originally from Lanky lad and fellow chef Marcus Wareing.

There are, remarkably, quite a few differences between. One opts for chops, but the second mentions middle neck. The latter seems more traditional.

It also suggests getting the meat boned, but then using the bones to make a lamb stock, which seemed like an excellent and authentic idea. After all, in the days when women made a hotpot and took it to the local baker to cook, long and slow after the bread had finished baking, while they did a shift in the local cotton mill, the stock probably wouldn’t have been made from a cube.

Although the invention is attributed to Nicolas Appert in 1831, bouillon cubes were first commercially produced by Maggi in 1908, with Oxo coming up with a meat extract one a couple of years later. By 1913, there were apparently at least 10 brands available – containing an astonishing 59-72% of salt, according to a 2005 article in the Journal of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry – which seems like another good reason to make your own stock.

And then there's the flavour issue – and indeed, the whole thing of not wasting anything.

So yesterday morning, I roasted the bones for 25 minutes (the recipe said 15, but then Gordon doesn't have to deal with my oven) and simmered stock for an hour and a half. That provided enough for two hotpots.

The recipes also differ as to whether they include lambs' kidneys: for me, this is an absolute essential. At one time, oysters were included, but it’s some years since they were ‘poor people's' food. Gordon also suggests red wine in one version – but that's a step too far in my book.

Of course, there are probably as many different versions of Lancashire hotpot as there are people who have cooked it. An intriguing recipe from 1937, which is apparently based one in Elizabeth Craig’s 1936 Cookery Illustrated and Household Management, uses both oysters and kidneys for the dish, together with best end neck of mutton cutlets.

It’s difficult, then, to say that there’s ever been a single ‘authentic' recipe.

So my Lancashire hotpot this time was really a mix of versions.

If you can't get middle neck of lamb because you haven't got access to one of those proper butchers that concerned-for-our-culinary-heritage Tesco and co have helped drive into the ground, then lamb chops will do just fine.

Ms Rothwell says to set the oven to a "moderate” heat – I go for around 150˚ in my fan-assisted (and awkward) one.

For two people, I used around 500g of boned middle neck and five kidneys. If someone doesn’t like kidneys (as The Other Half doesn’t), then adjust the amounts accordingly and just give the kidneys to those who like them – but don't cut them out: they really add an important richness to the dish.

Halve and core the kidneys, remove any excess fat from the meat and chop it into largish pieces, then brown everything in some oil. Remove from the pan.

Pop in some herbs – could be bouquet garni or just some dried rosemary and/or thyme.

Put the meat back in. Arrange sliced onion and chopped carrot on top.

Then pour in around 300ml of stock – it should come about half way up.

Peel some potatoes and slice (around the thickness of a pound coin). Layer these on top and then dot with butter. Cover and pop into the oven for around two hours.

Remove the lid and give it another 20 minutes.

Serve – if you want to be really traditional, with some pickled red cabbage on the side.

It's perfect food for this weather – even the aromas from the kitchen are warming and comforting while it simmers away gently.

I was really pleased with this version: the meat was lovely – almost melting but still holding together. It was worth the effort of finding such a cut – and it wasn’t expensive.

This isn't a dish that should need saving. But then again, as Rick Stein effectively said: this isn't France.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

What's up, cook?

Is it recipes, other instructions, the oven or me? That’s the question exercising my brain today, after something close to another culinary debacle last night.

A week or so ago, via Twitter, Liz Upton alerted followers to an article in Slate, discussing how poor cookery writers are at guessing how long it takes to prepare a meal.

The same subject has recently reared its head on this side of The Pond with Jamie Oliver’s new series (and accompanying book), Jamie’s 30-minute Meals.

I’ve watched a couple of the programmes, which do prove that Jamie at least really can prepare and cook some quite complex meals in the time alotted – although letters have appeared in the various parts of the media claiming it just ain’t possible: or at least, that other people find it takes slightly longer.

To be honest, I’ve never really worried about preparation guidelines: they’re just that, to my mind – guidelines.

But what does increasingly get me is actual cooking times.

And not just, as I’ve mentioned before, cooking times as given on, say, a bag of pasta. It’s all well and good to talk of pasta or vegetables or rice in a risotto as needing to be al dente, but I’m beginning to think that, on this little island of ours at least, we really do not understand what that means.

Whereas I have, more than once, had vegetables served to me here that were, in essence, not cooked, it doesn’t happen when on the other side of the Channel (or in good restaurants).

If I were to pay strict attention to timings on packets of pasta, I’d be struggling to munch though it. And the same goes for the cooking times usually given for risotto. I made that mistake in style the first time I attempted to cook risotto, having never actually eaten one before and, therefore, having nothing to judge it against.

But when I ate pasta for the first time in Italy itself earlier this year, and when I've eaten risotto in France (or even in UK restaurants), it’s been far softer. So adjusting the times given in books or on packets, I’ve come closer to achieving that effect at home.

However, there’s another aspect of timings that particularly frustrates me and it’s far harder to know how to deal with it.

A couple of years ago, when the cheap oven that had been part of our shared-ownership flat since the day we’d moved in was dying (it had done a very long stint that belied its initial cheapness), we bought a new oven – a Neff.

Now it’s a fan oven – good and environmental, and cheaper on electricity. A win-win situation, indeed.

Or so we thought.

But for cooking some things, it’s an absolute 'mare.

Now it’ll probably be fine with today’s Lancashire hotpot (about which, more tomorrow), but I never seem to be able to get a potatoes boulangerie right – is that me or that any instructions I’ve seen allow far too little time? Yet potatoes dauphinoise never seems a problem.

On Friday, with a day off in lieu of last weekend’s working, I headed to Borough Market. I had a few things to get, but it’s always a pleasure to wander around – not least on days and at times when it is not absolutely knee-deep in tourists.

There’s a small French shop there and, after sipping a wonderfully warming mulled wine (so much better in freezing open air than inside) I was planning a purchase of foie gras in my continuing campaign to be seen as more evil than the little Austrian with a chip on his shoulder.

What I hadn’t calculated on was spotting a beautifully dressed piece of rabbit, wrapped around with a strip of fat, stuffed with rabbit meat and prunes and topped by two of the same fruits. Wow.

I tried calling The Other Half to see if he’d try it (he doesn’t usually like prunes), but couldn’t get through to him. I gave up and took the chance.

"200˚ for 20 minutes," said the thoroughly delightful French woman working there.

"Non – 180", said her male colleague, which was followed by banter (with accompanying winks in my direction) about how long for the lower temperature.

As a slight aside, this delightful French lady gave me a complimentary goat’s cheese – which was very pleasantly tangy – but that may have been partly because of the discussion we had about foie gras. She’d heard about the Guardian article, but not about the crass responses, and shook her head in utter amazement.

Oh well, that’s another French person who probably thinks a lot of us are simply barking. Memo to self – never accept any offer to be an ambassador for these islands.

But let's get back to Bugs.

Knowing the difficulties with the aforementioned oven, I set the temperature for the correct equivalent of 180˚, but organised everything else to allow the meat longer than 20 minutes.

In the meantime, I diced carrots and started them off very gently in a little butter, prepped some broccoli and par-boiled some spuds, which were then dried, sliced and popped into hot olive oil to become sautéed potatoes. All the time, watching the clock carefully.

The meat didn’t seem to be browning at all. I turned the temperature up and gave it longer. The potatoes started to get a little browner than I would have wanted. I took them off and popped them in kitchen paper.

Eventually, I removed out the meat, left it for a minute or two, and then started to carve. It was still very much uncooked in the middle – and The Other Half in particular really does not like extremely rare meat.

Quickly washing and drying a pan, I heated some olive oil and bunged in the bunny.

It didn’t take long, but by the time I served everything, the potatoes were on the cool side and the carrots were closer to fried than the perfectly softened little cubes that I'd been aiming for.

The meat was tasty enough, but bloody hell – this was frustrating beyond belief.

Now I'm nobody's molecular gastronome, but really … shouldn’t cooking be a tad more scientific than trying to read tealeaves to see how long the next royal marriage will last?

So, is it recipes or other instructions? Is it the oven or is that I’m really rather an incompetent would-be cook with ideas far above my cooking station?

And if it's the oven – how on Earth do I work out a reliable method of knowing what's going to happen, at what temperature and in what time?

Yours, h'exasperated of Hackney.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Complain, complain, complain

Complain, complain, complain. That’s what it feels like today – a non-stop complaint. But at least there are various flavours of complaint here – and you, my readers, come out of it glowing like something that’s escaped from Sellafield.

To start with, I must have been tempting fate. On Tuesday, I mentioned that my culinary aims for the weeks ahead (and particularly this weekend) include things that involve foie gras.

Then, in yesterday’s Guardian, the excellent Oliver Thring was
considering the issue of that gorgeous treat.

It's an interesting piece – but some of the comments that have flowed forth since are utterly hilarious in their absurdity and vitriol.

It seems that food is becoming one of the new religion substitutes – which rather begs the question of whether the original is preferable to the substitute, as say, in the case of butter and margarine, which brought Mr Thring’s writing to my attention.

Let me share with you a soupçon of the idiocy on display. One poster asserted: “Humans who enjoy eating foie gras may as well just eat their young children after torturingly overfeeding them to the point of their most deliciousness, especially if they realise the despicable reality of this and do it anyway.”

Have you seriously ever read such utterly hysterical, hyperbolic rubbish?

Another poster stated with religious certainty: “No decent person would eat this foodstuff. No moral, decent, pleasant-natured person would consider it.”

Wow. The entire being of anyone (myself included) can be judged, over the internet, on the basis of a foodstuff that I enjoy, which others disapprove of. It’s a view that was voiced by a substantial number of posters.

I can’t help musing that these are probably the self same cretins who ride their bikes pavements and claim that it’s my responsibility, as a pedestrian, to get out of their way while they’re breaking the law.

But then that’s just one of my little bugbears – I have no evidence on which to base such a leap. Just as they lack any basis for assuming that, because I eat foie gras, I’m akin to a really, really evil mix of Hitler, child abusers and generally all-round bad eggs (although obviously, when eating unborn baby chickie-wicks – and I do love them soft-boiled – I try to avoid the bad ones).

But what also riled me was the Puritanical decrying of pleasure: one poster claimed that they enjoyed their food, but they ‘ate to live, not lived to eat’, and detested those who take serious pleasure in food.

Now on that basis, one must be able to decide on and recognise a line in the culinary sand over which one’s pleasure doth not stray.

Which is a pretty bonkers idea, when you think about it. And that's without asking just what is actually wrong with pleasure? There's a certain religiosity in objecting to people taking pleasure in pleasurable things – a bit like claiming that all sex should be for the purposes of procreation alone and that the 'sex-for-pleasure mentality', as I once saw it described, is something beyond the pale.

Of course anyone's completely within their rights to dislike a particular foodstuff on whatever grounds – and to say that. That doesn't get to excuse them from displays of ultra-stupidity, though.

And so such stupidity is complaint number one in today’s litany of Sybaritic whinging (and trust me, writing it down is proving very pleasurable).

Complaint number two is the announcement that I have printed off my Piccolino post – and am sending it, with covering note, to the company that ultimately owns that chain, with a request for a response.

Let’s see what they have to say for themselves – I’ll let you know.

Complaint three is nothing to do with food – although the English reluctance to complain properly about anything (no, complaining over a pint in your local doesn’t count) is a serious point and includes complaints about food and service, such as the Piccolino case.

I got to the Angel on my bus this morning and then got a 476, which was apparently heading for its usual end-of-journey destination at Euston.

Then, outside the old Thamesmead station, we were all informed that it wasn’t going any further and that we’d have to get off.

Now, I know it was only three further stops until my usual destination (I walked), but that’s not the point. The point, as I, err, pointed out, is that this has happened before (I always take care to check the advertised destination before boarding a 476), and I wish to know why the bus company feels that it is entirely acceptable to break the contract that it makes with me, as a customer, unilaterally and without warning.

Because breaking a form of contract is what it amounts to, when I pay for something on the basis of the service advertised and then, for no understandable reason (such as an accident or break-down etc), the terms of that service are changed before what I paid for has been realised.

I await a response.

Now, that’s quite enough complaining for one day.

But wait – I’ve forgotten to mention why you, my readers, come out of all this complaining so well.

It’s simple: whatever any of you may feel about foie gras, none of you would dream of making such ignorant and crass comments as the kind that I quoted above.

I’m lucky to know you as readers.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Culinary aims for the weeks ahead

Having worked through last weekend – this is beginning to feel like a very long stretch now – I’m looking forward to a nicely extended weekend, starting on Friday.

And the obvious first thing to do on Friday is to get myself down to Borough Market, which then raises the very pleasant question of just what culinary projects to set myself for the weekend.

Something that’s been tempting me for quite a while if foie gras – not the paté, but the fresh stuff. And at Borough, there’s a stall that sell it. It’s not cheap, of course, but I am wondering whether to get some, eat a little myself for Friday lunch and then make the rest into a paté. We’ll see.

This weekend really does have to see a test run of consommé – I think I’m going to try a mushroom one, as it’ll be much cheaper than trying game. The main thing is the clarification, anyway.

I also need to tie down ideas for the big eating days – and then make sure that all my favourite suppliers are going to be at Broadway Market on Christmas Eve. I’m away the previous weekend and it’s getting dangerously near to needing to place orders and check such details.

But another project I now have in mind is completing the classic ‘French mother sauces’.

This is one of those fascinating pieces of information that I discovered when looking up something else – in this case, hollandaise, as a result of Friday’s risotto.

Apparently, these sauces are the foundation of classical sauce making. They are:

Velouté – done this via a couple of Gordon Ramsay pasta recipes;

Bechamel – done this too;

Tomato – pretty obvious;

Espagnole – done this too, for the sour brown shallot sauce that I serve with our Boxing day ham every year;

Hollandaise – not done this yet.

So, actually not very far to go on completing the ‘set’. Interestingly, I saw a definition online for a “more contemporary definition of mother sauces”, which was vinagrette, demi glace, beurre blanc, aioli/mayonnaise and sauce a la crème.

Now I’ve only ever tackled one of those – the aioli – so that leaves me with a whole new set of challenges in future.

But one of the reasons I want to learn hollandaise in particular is that it’s considered the key to béarnaise, which I’ve once with steak and would love to be able to make.

So, that gives me a series of things to think about – and if one thing’s certain, Borough will give me plenty more to think about.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The experience that got right on me Bristol Cities

Sunday afternoon, traveling through a very English landscape between Bristol and Bath: rowing eights on the river as the train speeds past; golden, brown and tawny trees on the rolling hills behind, the skies dark and brooding.

It was, frankly, something of a relief to be leaving Bristol – or rather, it was a relief to be going home. Conferences and hotel living never really give you the opportunity to relax completely.

But at least I have one excellent food memory. And one that was – well, less than excellent.

To recap a little: the last time I was in Bristol for work was in January 2009. On that occasion, our staff dinner was at Piccolino, the Bristol outlet of a chain that has 22 restaurants from London to Liverpool. As I explained a few days ago, it was a bit of a disaster: kitchen staff seemed to have gone missing and we waited over two hours for our food.

I don’t mind waiting for food – indeed, I’d be suspicious if my order landed within seconds on my making it. But two hours was stretching things a tad.

This time around, the person who was booking our staff meal hadn’t been with us on that occasion and didn’t know the story, so had booked Piccolino. As I also mentioned previously, we’d been asked to order in advance.

Early on Saturday afternoon, our organiser had received an email explaining that one of our number had ordered the roast red and yellow pepper soup. Hey, that was me. But unfortunately, they’d apparently not had a delivery and couldn’t do the soup.

Which begs the question: had not had a delivery of what, precisely? Peppers? You do know, don’t you, Piccolino, that you’re actually situated in a shopping centre, with plenty of places in very close proximity that will sell peppers? Surely it couldn’t have been a delivery of the soup itself?

In the event, they were offering an alternative of mushroom and tarragon soup – fortunately, the necessary ingredients had been found loitering in the kitchen looking shifty and with no alternative future plans. So, rather than struggle to get hold of the full menu and make an alternative choice, I opted for that.

Fast forward a few hours. Around half of us arrived early. Our reservation was for 7.45pm: we got there around 7.20pm, but some colleagues were still working. The manageress announced that the starters were going to be put on the table at 7.30pm, regardless of whether we were all there.

Great. So if none of us had arrived until just before the time that we’d actually booked, you’d have had the waiting staff plonking our food down at an empty table, yes?

Hardly an auspicious start.

The two blokes present quickly ordered beers, while the two women other than myself debated about ordering wine and chickened out of it. I got hold of a wine list. The top of the wines on the white list was just under £18. Fairly close, as memory serves, was a Chardonnay. I asked whether it was un-oaked. The manageress didn’t know but offered me a taste. “Thank you,” I said. She went away, only to return a few minutes later with the news that there was none left – but asked if I wanted a dry wine?

I looked back at the list, spotted an Italian Riesling, asked the only other person present at that juncture who wanted white wine whether they would be okay with that, and ordered it.

Now, this is my faux pas and I hold my hands up: I didn’t clock the price. Perhaps more to the point, I didn’t even really think to clock it. Later, everyone who wanted white wine thought it very good, but when the bill arrived, it turned out to have been £32 a bottle.

Gasps all around and feelings of guilt on part that lasted until the following morning (despite being assured that everyone was on expenses so there really shouldn’t be an issue for anyone).

Actually, one colleague made a point: that you just don’t expect a bottle of wine in such a place to cost that much. And last night, I looked back at the Brasserie Blanc wine list and saw again that the majority of the wines were well under £30 – indeed, closer to the £20 mark.

But we’ll return to this later.

My soup arrived: with a thin skin on it. How long had that been waiting to be served early to someone whose reservation wasn’t until 15 minutes later? It was on the salty side too, which also suggests a wait.

When the almost-empty bowl was removed, I realised that one of my forks was dirty. Okay, it was replaced easily, but things were beginning to add up. To invoke Lady Bracknell: one cock-up is unfortunate; two is carelessness.

My main course – skewers of large prawns, scallops and salmon – was okay, but far from exceptional. Although it’s probably fair to say that it suffered by comparison with a dish of skewered seafood in Port Vendres in September.

But setting aside that the seafood itself couldn’t hope to be as fresh, little effort was made with presentation: it was just three wooden skewers and a lemon quarter that was reluctant to squirt forth any juice.

My side of broccoli and chili was acceptable – but they could take lessons in cooking vegetables from Brasserie Blanc: al dente does not mean almost raw.

One colleague had ordered the lamp steak. What arrived was lamb shank, which she apparently doesn’t like. More to the point, it was not what she’d ordered. The manageress explained that the menus were seasonal and that the seasonal menu had changed.

So what? You didn’t know, when you insisted we order in advance and sent us a link to a menu, that you were changing it by the time we visited?

Eventually, after some debate, they took it away and brought a pasta dish instead.

Still, while she waited, there were lots of bowls of chips that kept arriving at the table. And spinach.

I had caramel ice cream for dessert. Nothing to write home about.

And then the bill arrived. A very large bill.

It was fairly instantly assumed that the size of the aforementioned bill was down to my wine selection.

The following morning, a colleague who had been present told me that there had been some grumbling from two other women, and that she had pointed out that it was “collective responsibility”. That we’d all drunk the wine and enjoyed it. And then she had enquired how many bottles we’d been billed for. They hauled the bill out. Three.

A moment later, she pointed out that this didn’t add up – that that was not all that had made the bill so large.

So they checked it again, item by item. We’d paid for several portions of side dishes that nobody had ordered (more bowls of chips, for instance) and the colleague who had ordered lamb steak had been charged for the lamb shank and the pasta.

And with a service charge on top, we were also paying a further percentage on what we hadn’t ordered.

One of the staff checked when the restaurant opened and went back in the late morning to confront the manageress.

On the wine front, she argued that I’d seen the menu (true) and was therefore responsible. Now as you’ll have gathered, I’ve held my hands up to this one.

But it was apparently also pointed out to her that she could perhaps have indicated to me the price difference between what I’d originally enquired about and what I’d then opted for when my original choice was not available. And that it was very gloomy (there’s a reason that there are no photos with this article). She gave us £10 back on each of the bottles of Riesling though.

But there’s a lesson here – check wine prices properly, even when you simply don’t expect prices in such an establishment to be over a certain amount.

We also received further monies back – but stressed that the young man who had been our waiter (it was apparently his first day – and he hadn’t taken our orders anyway) was very good and no fault attached to him. She asked if that meant that we didn’t want to challenge the service charge, to which she was informed that we were certainly not paying a service charge on things we hadn’t ordered.

I suspect much of the success of our colleague in getting a refund wasn’t so much that the restaurant knew that we were right, but that such places are not used to anyone complaining and want to get the problem sorted out as soon as possible.

In general, the English don’t complain. And let’s face it, the morning after dining in a large group, when the booze was flowing freely, how many people would really go through their bill and have a clear enough memory of what they ate to challenge it – let alone the inclination to do so? But then again, because we’d pre-ordered and there were email records of that, we could prove it.

So there’s a lesson there too.

But what really finished off the experience came 24 hours later, back at home and browsing the old interwebby. I looked up the corporate website for the entire chain.

Now, you may recall my comments yesterday about the ‘mission statement’ at Brasserie Blanc.

Here are some extracts from the Piccolino mission statement:

“Welcome to Piccolino: a selection of vibrant Italian neighbourhood restaurants offering chic yet informal dining. Inspired by the traditional charm and contemporary buzz of classic brasseries, Piccolino brings a true taste of Italy to its customers.”

“Inspired by”? I’ve visited a couple of Italian brasseries. In Italy. And on the basis of Piccolino Bristol, I fail to see any connection whatsoever. Super, but unpretentious food in unpretentious surroundings – that was my experience of brasserie eating in Italy. Not in Piccolino, Cabot Circus, Bristol.

But wait, it gets better.

“Piccolino restaurants bring the rustic charm of Italy to the cityscapes and suburban environments of the UK.”

“Rustic”? Are you serious? “Rustic”?

Okay, I’m not going to comment on the group’s other restaurants because I haven’t visited any of them, but Bristol is like an ’80s cocktail bar. Glass and chrome and leather is not, by the greatest stretch of the imagination possible, “rustic”.

And neither is very ‘subdued’ lighting and pumping rock music that makes it difficult to have a conversation with the person next to you – let alone anyone two seats away. Perhaps they distract from the food? And the bill?

But hold on a minute – you’ve already claimed that Piccolino restaurants are “chic”, and now they’re “rustic” too? Hey everybody, Piccolino has invented rustic chic – drat: wasn’t that Marie Antoinette?

This is like a written version of verbal diarrhoea.

“There is no such thing as ordinary Italian fare at Piccolino …”

Well on that score, you’re right. Unfortunately.

“Our restaurants bring only the finest quality seasonal ingredients to the high street …”

Out of interest, just when did asparagus become a “seasonal” ingredient in the UK in November? And the pdf menu that is available online for the chain is still (as of 22 November) showing asparagus in two courses. The file name clarifies that it’s a menu from September 2010, several months after the end of the asparagus season. I have downloaded a copy as a souvenir.

“ … with everything freshly prepared and made on the premises by our chefs.”

Could you really not send someone out to buy some peppers? You know – there’s even a Sainsbury’s Local around the corner that probably sells those bags with a red, yellow and green pepper in? And come to that, where are they grown in this country in November?

My mind drifts back to Brasserie Blanc. Word got around that I had been. Several people asked me about it, expecting that it would have been hugely expensive. After all, a French celebrity chef has his French name attached to it, so you must need a bank loan to dine there.

My meal at Piccolino, even after our refund, cost more than my meal at Brasserie Blanc. And there is not even any comparison when it comes to the standard of the food.

The soup currently listed on the Piccolino “party menu” is £5. The same as that heavenly smoked haddock risotto. Which is expensive?

My main course at Piccolino cost £16.95. At Brasserie Blanc, it was £15.50.

At Brasserie Blanc, it was £5.50 for four scoops of ice cream and sorbet, with biscuits etc. At Piccolino, it was £5.25 for two scoops of caramel ice cream in a sundae glass. With a sprig of mint.

Yet Piccolino is the sort of restaurant that people assume is affordable, as opposed to what they imagine is posher and unaffordable. And yet they apparently accept (because it’s been open at least two years and always seems busy) inferior food and chaotic (at best) service.

As I said recently, there’s a con afoot. Either that, or the British really care less about good food than about dining in glitzy settings with loud music that stop them being able to hold a coherent and pleasant conversation.

I’ll say one thing: if I get sent to Bristol again for work, I’m putting a claiming notice down that we absolutely do not go near Piccolino again. It's going to take a while to get rid of the sour aftertaste.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Food to relax with and relish

Mission statements and restaurants are a curious mix: in the case of Brasserie Blanc in Bristol, it makes clear that the establishment isn’t setting out to serve haute cuisine, but ordinary food to be enjoyed with family or friends; that its philosophy is that of a brasserie.

Unpretentious it may be, but the food is still far from ‘ordinary’ – but then, that may say more about the food that we’re used to than the proprietor’s idea of ‘ordinary’.

To start with, the building itself is really rather special – not least as it stands in the middle of a rather bland and modern, up-market shopping square (which even has the obligatory seasonal ice-rink outside at present).

Originally an 18th century Quaker meeting house, and later the home of a registery office, it’s been very sensitively converted. Given a choice, I decided to sit upstairs. At a table that perfectly fitted the gap between a pew and the back of the front one (now replaced with a walkway), it offered a lovely view, right down and into the kitchen.

The vast wine rack could almost have been an old church organ (I realise that the Quakers don’t use music as part of their worship, but bear with me: it reminded me of many of the non-conformist chapels I’ve visited).

The music was low-key lounge jazz, avoiding muzak, but just taking the edge off the quietness.

I could sit back and enjoy the scene: staff bustling around – a form of synchronised waiting as they go about their work. They reminded me of watching the horses towing cannons at speed and appearing to barely miss each other in the Royal Tournament.

Good bread and butter were supplied, plus chilled water with a big slice of lemon. The latter was just the sort of touch that is appreciated and shows a bit more thought.

I was enormously tempted by the prune and Armagnac terrine, but with the main course almost certainly destined to be meat, it seemed like the perfect reason to try the starter of the day, a smoked haddock risotto. Now I’m sure that the terrine is wonderful, but I’m also sure that this was the right choice.

It was just sublime. Beautiful, natural smokiness from the fish; the rice was superb – grains still just distinct, but soft enough to have almost melded together; a lovely little egg, perfectly poached, topped it, and the buttery hollandaise complimented everything delightfully.

Unctuous and soothing, the sort of food that mellows and relaxes you … well, I could eat that every day, frankly. Nothing complicated, nothing pretentious. Just good food done superbly well.

And accompanied by a glass of Domaine St Jean de Conques Vin de Pays D’Oc, which was light and fruity, providing a nice contrast to the lush food.

For a main course, I opted for Dutch calf’s liver with bacon, sage, a smooth mash and a lovely dark gravy.

It came with fine beans – which was a small irritation because I know perfectly well that they’re not currently in season and seasonality is also something that the Brasserie Blanc brand proclaims. But I will say that they were perfectly cooked: how do you get fine beans that are cooked but still crisp? In other words, crisp but most definitely not raw, which is how the staff canteen at work so often serves vegetables. It’s clearly an art form.

The liver was lovely – very light, almost with a mousse-like quality. Puréed potatoes great – although I can’t say that I really spotted the sage anywhere. Bacon nice and crisp too.

For this, I chose a glass of Côtes du Rhône Château de Montfaucon: bold berry tastes, but not too strong for the lightness of the meat.

In some ways, this course was always going to struggle a little after the culinary orgasm of the starter, but it was good. Very good.

My waitress – a charming young lady who was unrushed and perfectly happy to answer questions or advise on the wine – allowed me a welcome respite before dessert.

Feeling pretty much stuffed by this time, I decided to go safe and ask for ice cream or sorbet. So what flavours were on offer?

The first thing I learned was that an ice cream or sorbet dessert means four scoops.

Well how can a girl refuse? I picked vanilla and chocolate ice creams, with mango and blackcurrant sorbets. When it arrived, with the little balls of frozen wonderfulness atop a crisp biscuit, just melting to reveal their true flavour and scent, and topped with yet another biscuit, it almost felt sacrilegious to destroy the delightful presentation.

But I made the sacrifice. And the sorbets in particular were fabulously flavoursome and refreshing.

As always, I skipped coffee – I can’t drink it after a meal. For some reason, it’s as if it makes my stomach over-heat and, in the dim and distant past, has been known to send me running to the ladies.

It was an enormously satisfying meal, the thought of which lingers and will doubtless linger for some time.

Nothing over-fancy; just essentially simple food done exceptionally well, and served in a very pleasant environment by good staff.

What more can you ask for? Well indeed. But while Brasserie Blanc's mission statement might seem rather unnecessary, the following night was to show very clearly just why such a restaurant feels the need to make a statement of intent.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Time on my hands

With time on my hands in Bristol, I headed to Harvey Nicks to see if they had a food hall here.

No hall, perhaps, but a little corner of the store had been given over to fodder. There, I found a few things to interest me.

First, a tub of Tom Douglas “rub with love” for salmon. I’m always looking for ways to make our regular bit of fillet more interesting and this ticked the right box.

Containing brown sugar, smoked paprika, salt, black pepper and thyme, it should be interesting.

Then a white fig confit to eat with goat’s cheese and a bag of pfeffernüsse, those gorgeous little German ginger biscuit/cakes, covered in icing, which probably won’t actually make it back to London on Sunday afternoon.

And then, as if I hadn’t been tempted enough, I found a Harvey Nicks Christmas shop a few doors down. Having wandered around, I was about to leave, wending my way toward the exit, past the cheese counter.

Except that I couldn’t force myself “past” said counter without reaching out to try some of the comte that was sitting on a little wooden platter waiting to be tasted. Lovely.

And that started a conversation with the rather good looking and muscular (what biceps!) young man who was serving.

Comte good, of course, but how about something regional?

“Oh, I can’t really buy cheese – it won’t keep between now and my journey home on Sunday.”

“Well perhaps a little to keep you going while you’re here,” he suggested in flirtatious manner, unwrapping a piece and proffering a taste. That’s really not a fair tactic.

It was Keen’s cheddar – something I’ve never liked. Or not until now. Perhaps that’s because I’ve only ever had it from a supermarket. This, however, was out of this world: absolutely gorgeous.

He actually works as a cheesemaker with Gorwydd Caerphilly, which I recognised instantly on the stall. Indeed, as I told him, I’d had some from their stall at Borough Market a couple of weeks ago.

He explained that the farms that produce Keen’s and Mongomery cheddars are incredibly near (only a couple of miles apart), yet the taste is so different. He suggested that perhaps it’s the extra layers of cloth that the Keen family put on their cheese that gives it such a different taste, showing me the difference in thickness of covering.

Inevitably, I bought a small piece, wrapped specially in wax paper (none of that plastic nonsense). Fortunately, while my hotel room’s minibar is empty, it’s still working and the cheese won’t get hot and sweaty in what is a quite warm room. But like the pfeffernüsse, it’s possible that not much will make it home.

And then it was time for the real countdown for my meal at Brasserie Blanc to begin. Which seemed to cause time to slow down.

Having earlier played ‘hunt the iron’ to no avail, I’d attempted to press my trousers with one of the Corby Trouser Presses that haunt every hotel room in the UK. To no avail, as it was reluctant to heat.

Eventually, I found the iron, hiding on its board at the ‘wring’ side of the wardrobe. Let’s face it: you can’t turn up at a Raymond Bland eaterie with creased pants!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Cutting the mustard

Away from a world of restaurants, life on the culinary home front continues to please and frustrate in pretty much equal measure.

The frustration part is largely because I still struggle to think of varied meals for midweek eating that will please both me and The Other Half. This, I assure you, is no easy feat. Well, just consider, if you can, the impact of The Other Half's aversion to cheese and you'll see what I mean.

So on Monday, I opted for plain pork sausages with puréed potato, and leek and courgette – which allowed me to finally open up one of George's mustards and let it tickle my tastebuds. This was the apricot mustard – and very good it is too: fruity, with a nicely developing heat. There'll be no problem finishing off the jar.

In case I haven't already, I'll take the opportunity to point you in this direction, where you can find out more.

And indeed, this is as good an opportunity as any other to also point you toward The Coven in Wigan, which is using George's tracklements – and has the sort of food philosophy that I appreciate.

They're also committed to a project in Wigan aimed at boosting small, independent local businesses in the old quarter of the town – an issue that regular readers of this blog will know I get quite hot under the proverbial collar about too.

Yesterday was not really a foodie day – well, not by the time I'd done a shift in the staff bar, where volunteer bar persons are rewarded by being able to play the music of their choice, and an understanding that, when someone buys a round, said volunteer get a free drink. It's our version of the Big Society. Hick!

Tonight, The Other Half and I had finally committed ourselves to a study session, having both decided to take an Open University French beginners' course.

We worked for almost an hour – a productive time – he with a mug of tea and me with a Man City mug full of Bovril: very sophisticated. Then it was time for dinner.

Neither of us had eaten much during the day: I breakfasted on porridge with honey, plus a camomile tea and a mince pie from Pret, served by a charming young lady who I could swear was flirting with me as she complimented my hairdo and then expressed astonishment that I dyed it because I'd started finding white hairs a decade ago.

My constant horror at what is served up in the canteen reached a new high with today's lunch menu, which was topped by 'cottage pie served with rice and onion salad'.

Stop it. Just stop it. The Other Half rolls his eyes at the canteen's usual accompaniment for cottage pie of carrots and baked beans. But at least the former is not out of place.

There's nowt wrong with cottage pie, and it needs no accompaniment – just cook with peas in it and possibly some diced carrot. There'll be onion there anyway, so it's hardly devoid of vegetables. You don't serve something that is topped with a form of starchy carb with a salad made up of another starchy carb.

We each had Pret soup.

So you can imagine that I was rather hungry this evening. Having done our studying, I rustled up a little brain food as a restorative. I'd marinaded some salmon fillets in a mixture of tomato purée, dried chili, olive oil and the light balsamic vinegar I use for dipping bread. The fish was then cooked very gently in a lidded sauté pan, with the marinade, so that it largely steamed.

Basmati rice was boiled and, for side vegetables,the remains of an unfinished courgette, about half a large leek and a medium carrot were thickly sliced and popped into a saucepan with some melted butter and olive oil. Put a lid on and shake vigorously, then turn the heat right down and give it at least 10 minutes, Again, it steams. I seasoned with some of George's celery salt.

That was quite pleasing. Hardly culinary rocket science, but something a little beyond a portion each of starch, protein and veg neatly arranged in compartmentalised fashion around a plate. And that has been another of my midweek frustrations, but gradually it seems that I'm finding ways of getting beyond that at least a little.

Living is learning, they say – and cooking certainly is!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A burst of eating out

The eating-out season starts this weekend. It’s probably fair to say that, between now and the Monday before Christmas, I’ll eat in more British restaurants than throughout the rest of the year.

‘Why is it starting so early?’ you ask.

Ah well, to start with, I’m being sent to Bristol this weekend for work. Now I have to eat for two days and two nights while there. The daytimes won’t offer a great deal of time for fodder, so I’ll grab something light.

Of course I could eat the cheapest and plainest food available, but I really have little interest in that – and besides, as I illustrated elsewhere, what is often regarded as cheap eating in this country is not.

Saturday evening is taken care of with the staff dinner, to which my somewhat belated invitation only arrived this morning, with an appeal to choose my meal straight away.

We’re going to Piccolino at Cabot Circus – to which all I can say at present is that I hope it won’t be like our last visit there in January 2009, when we had to wait over two hours for the food (cooks had gone missing). To be fair, the staff were deeply embarrassed, very courteous and as helpful as they could be: and we got everything free – including the wine. But it was an odd evening where my interest in the food (when it eventually emerged) was wrecked.

As the organiser of this conference’s staff meal (a thankless task) has pointed out, hopefully, by choosing what we want now, it’ll help avoid such problems on the night. She might have a point, although I can't help feeling that any establishment that has as much space as Piccolino does, and which happily takes large bookings, should be able to deal with the maximum number of covers without insisting that some people select their food in advance. After all, what happens if the place is full of couples or very small parties?

I hate choosing a meal days or weeks before I’m going to eat, but sometimes you’re given no choice.

But my choice for Piccolino this time is marinated nocellara olives to nibble, before a roast red and yellow pepper soup. Then skewered king prawns, scallops and salmon in oregano, chili and lemon, with tender stem broccoli, chili and garlic as a side. Thankfully, we have not had to order a dessert at this stage.

But what is really exciting me right now is Friday’s dining plan. For the first time, I have actually made a reservation to dine alone.

I realised, with some surprise, that the last time I was in Bristol, I lunched at Brasserie Blanc, as in Raymond Blanc.

Now it seems completely awful to admit, but I don’t remember a thing about it. That’s almost certainly because I had little time and raced in and out again, managing just one hurried course and half a bottle of sparkling water.

But of course, such things can be rectified. And now I intend to spend considerably longer there and invest considerably more attention to the experience.

The Other Half looked up from his terminal when I announced this and commented wryly that that’ll be my daily living-away-from-home-for-work allowance gone in one sitting, but the prices are not necessarily particularly high.

Indeed, they do a two-courses-with-wine deal for about £12. So, little more than the cost of a McDonalds meal for two. Which makes for an interesting perspective on something or other, I think.

Now, I admit to already having drooled over the menu – but I’m not choosing yet, simply anticipating. And what pleasure there is to be had in that.

Monday, 15 November 2010

What's your secret?

The Guardian had a fun piece today about 'secret ingredients' that set me thinking.

Now part of the article was about those branded goods that we all have in our cupboards – but it is also about our 'secret' ingredients: what do we add to give a dish that extra ;whoomph'?

Now of course I have branded ingredients in the cupboards – although probably not as many as at one time.

For instance, I always have a tin of Lyle’s golden syrup on hand. Ahhh, golden syrup. A vital ingredient in Nigella’s steamed pud (which The Other Half likes very much) and my mother’s ginger cake – and indeed, a dessertspoon was added to chocolate and butter for the sauce on my profiteroles on Saturday.

It’s an ingredient that brings to mind childhood memories.

In one of my mother’s very occasional forays into food as unadulterated, indulgent pleasure, with nary a nutritional excuse in sight, the golden syrup would emerge from the cupboard whenever someone sent us a tub of clotted cream from Cornwall.

She would take slices of white bread and butter them (okay, let’s not overdo things: it would be Stork margerine), then spread on a layer of sticky syrup and top with cream.

Oh, it might not have been sophisticated, but it was a pleasure that ranked above even being allowed to take a piece of bread and wipe out the enamel tin in which she’d grill bacon in (which was probably the nearest I ever got to bread and dripping).

So in such a spirit, I admit that in my cupboard, there’s a jar of Tabasco (but come on, that’s essential for the crucial Bloody Mary while you’re slaving over a hot stove); there’s a jar of Patak’s Korma paste because it's easy and good, and one of Bovril, for a warming winter drink.

There’s some soy sauce too – some people say it’s always worth adding a shot to any casserole or stew to give it some pep, just as Taste No5 umami paste, which has recently arrived on the market, promises that adding it to pretty much anything will result in “spellbinding flavours”. Although I only use soy when I'm on a Chinese kick and I've never yet tried umami.

Apple sauce and mint sauce and horseraddish are all present and correct.

Bottles of liquid stock (veg, beef and chicken) for when I haven’t got any of my own or I only need a little or I’m in a hurry are clustered in cupboard corner together.

But if I really have any ‘secret’ ingredients (and they won’t be secret for much longer) then it would be Maggi, "liquid seasoning" and redcurrant jelly.

I was introduced to the former by George: it's a sort of central/eastern European version of soy, I think, and I do add it to casseroles and stews, if not with abandon, then with care.

The latter, I use as an ingredient when I feel that a casserole or stew needs that something extra that is almost impossible to define.

So there you have it: food confessions. And I'd certainly recommend both of my secrets to you for use in your own kitchens!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Judging too harshly?

Google is your friend. So with that in mind, a quick search was made today for 'piping profiteroles' to see just how you get the best shape possible. But after watching a brief video of Gordon Ramsay making the little beauties, I have to say that I probably don't need to be too worried about the look and shape of my own first efforts yesterday. Indeed, I'm probably even more chuffed now. If it's good enough for Gordon, it most certainly should be good enough for me.

In a very general post today (which means that, if you persist and read through this, you'll get to more real foodie stuff), I also found myself wanting to highlight the news (I missed it yesterday) that McDonalds, Pepsi and assorted other companies are to be invited to advise the government on public health and nutrition etc.

Assuming it's accurate, I possibly was not alone in checking the date, but no, you haven't been in hibernation and it isn't 1 April.

Now, for the benefit of anyone who doesn't know me particularly well – and let's face it, this blog isn't really very old – I was hardly the biggest fan of the previous UK government. Iraq/Afghanistan and civil liberties in particular could easily get me going. As too could the way that, under the last government's watch, size/weight became more of a stigma than at any previous time. Being fat was sometimes like being a single mother under the previous Tory administration – you were a scapegoat for many other problems.

I can go back a decade at least to pointing this out in print and suggesting that the attitude of government (together with health professionals/groups and elements in the media) had effectively created a bullies' charter.

So the first question that occurs to me is: are there greater levels of obesity now than in previous years?

Well, on the basis of observation (and you might gather from my previous comments that I'm almost painfully aware about the subject), I'd say yes, there are. I'd also specifically say (and this is based on memory, not science) that I seem to be seeing more seriously overweight children around than when I was at school.

The next question is whether that's a problem. Well, on the basis of what the medical profession tells us (and the stats they employ), then yes it is, for health reasons. It will reduce life expectancy, particularly for those who are seriously obese when very young.

There are also the political and economic issues: will there be a large enough and healthy enough workforce to pay the taxes that pay for any government expenditure? What will the impact be on the cost of health care if many more people have, say, type 1 diabetes?

Okay, so there are problems. The next question is whether those problems are the concern of the state. Few people would not consider the economic health of a nation to be a concern for government – and therefore anything that has a substantial impact on the economic health of the nation.

And if one has a state health system, then few would not think that government should be involved in that, too. After all, that's partly a matter of democracy and democratic accountability.

To be quite clear – I don't know the answers and I don't pretend to. I think (as I hope I've made clear) that the previous government's approach to the issue was flawed (and that of health bodies and the media).

But inviting fast food outlets and supermarkets to consider the subject? It's so surreal that the jokes are already flying: Dracula to run blood banks; Fritzel to run pregnancy advice; Sutcliffe to run women's refuges. You get the drift: I couldn't personally think up another one (too busy being gobsmacked) so I've had to quote the efforts of others.

To begin with, private companies have one ultimate duty – and that's a legal obligation, not a matter of choice – to maximise profits for their shareholders.

Which is fine and dandy – but how can that square with the public health in general?

A few posts ago, I wrote about Stewart Lee Allen’s In the Devil’s Garden: a sinful history of forbidden food.

As I wrote then of the book: "He had already discussed fast food, the culture of not cooking, of not sitting down to eat as a family, of TV dinners etc, and decided that such behaviours are not about pleasure, but quite the reverse, and are essentially part of a massive con by big business."

Allen quite clearly makes the point that people in the US have been 'trained' to think that time spent cooking and eating good food is time wasted. He states that, after all, it gets in the way of you spending time doing jobs you hate. I increasingly think that the same can be applied to the UK. Of course, it's not helped when few women (in particular) have the financial wherewithal to realistically be able to choose whether or not to work, particularly if they also want a family.

But as I also illustrated here, there is a con going on over the amount the good food costs, in both financial and time senses.

Can inviting poachers to become gamekeepers remotely change this?

One finds oneself asking further questions: we already know what privatisation did to school meals (just as we know what it did to hospital cleaning). Although many had campaigned on the issue for years (including the trade union UNISON, which organises in school kitchens), it took the celebrity glitter of TV chef Jamie Oliver to get anything at all done in recent years. And good for him for that.

But can we imagine what the input of supermarkets and fast food chains and such will be when discussion arise about school meals in future?

Okay – we can only "imagine" it at present, but I don't believe that you need to be a conspiracy theorist to see a conflict of interest here.

And so folks, for being really dedicated, here's today's foodie bit.

We were allowed to sleep late by the cats – and sleep late we really did. I'd ended up watching soft-classical musician André Rieu on Sky Arts until rather late, and then had a read in bed.

So we decided not to worry about lunch as such and simply get whatever we wanted. However, as of 4.23pm (now!) a pot is on the hob, cooking away.

I've gone for a rolled, boned shoulder of lamb this weekend. As per a recipe in my general French cookery book (the one that's been a Bible for some years now), I'm cooking it with carrots, onion, garlic, a bouquet garni (homemade and not a sachet), red wine from Roussilon, beef stock and some parsnip that I added off my own bat. Later, it will have a tin of haricot beans added. If I honestly believe that life is too short for one things, it's soaking pulses overnight and then cooking them for hours.

It'll take a while, but it'll still be an early dinner by our usual standards. And strangely enough, when reading Mark Kurlansky on salt, he had mentioned something that sounds exactly like this dish, and it's from Brittany. So there you go.

For anyone's who's interested:

Heat some butter and olive oil in a lidded casserole. Brown your boned, rolled shoulder of lamb in it and remove.

Pop in chopped onions, carrots (and parsnip, if you fancy my version – but keep the chunks decently large), plus four cloves of garlic, with each clove only peeled and halved, plus a bouquet garni. Sweat for around 10 minutes.

Add 250ml of red wine. De-glaze. Put the meat back in and add 250ml of beef stock. Bring to the boil, put the lid on, turn the heat right down, and cook for 1 and a1/2 to 2 hours. Check it – you know how you like your meat: and it's difficult to seriously overcook such a dish.

Then add a drained and rinsed tin of haricot beans – and cook for another 15-30 minutes.

Great stuff, with the lamb almost melting in the mouth.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Paranoia and profiteroles

Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History is proving to be a fascinating book – not just because the history itself is fascinating (I’m around 120 pages in, thus far, and the history is certainly fascinating), but also because the recipes are intriguing too.

It's probably no surprise to regular readers that, within a short time of starting the book, it had occurred to me that it might be really quite interesting to try salting my own meat at some stage.

And sitting in bed reading this morning, a 1968 recipe for salted, boiled beef from an Irish publication inspired me further. It was a recipe, I thought, that looked particularly interesting and particularly doable.

But it required, amongst other things, a “pound of course salt” and a little saltpetre. At which point, it dawned on me that there might be a problem.

Now saltpetre, as any schoolboy knows, is a vital ingredient in gunpowder as well as in salted beef.

‘Can you buy saltpetre in the UK these days?’ I wondered.

This sort of situation is what the internet was born for. So I Googled. And it appears, on the basis of what I could discover, that you cannot buy saltpetre in the UK any more – or at least not food grade and not if you’re an individual rather than a registered company wanting to purchase wholesale.

Now I’m perfectly well aware that the English are bonkers – and it’s frequently a bonkersness that I enjoy (often termed, a tad more politely, as ‘eccentric’ and more than once applied to yours truly), but there’s also a culture of bonkersness that grates.

Who is being protected from whom by such nonsense? The individual wanting to salt meat is suspect but a company never is? The individual is in danger from a chemical – but the company not?

Given that there are apparently a considerable number of ordinary household cleaning products that contain materials that can be used to make explosives, why such a regulation for this particular one, which has a very, very long history as an ingredient in preserving food?

Perhaps it’s partly an end-of-empire thing: a shrinking in on self; confusion, fear – even paranoia.

We do it with children too, increasingly wrapping them in cotton wool – oh, from the best of motives, no doubt, but also without considering the reality of the dangers they face: that child abuse, for instance, is far, far more likely in the home than as ‘stranger danger’ on the street.

Then we fill our homes with ‘antibacterial’ cleaners and other materials, without apparently considering the damage we actually do to our bodies' capacity to be effectively acted on by antibiotics when we really need them.

The latest TV advert promoting utter paranoia about germs/bacteria shows how awful, nasty things can get onto your conventional soap pump when you apply your nasty, germ-covered hand onto said pump to pump some soap out.

Ahhhhh! Can you imagine anything more terrifying?

Or illogical.

Because if you put a dirty hand on the pump to activate it, then your other dirty hand will be under it to catch the soap when it’s dispensed. Whichever way you do it, the soap goes into a dirty hand. But that’s the point, Because then, when one hand has pumped the soap out, it joins the other in the actual washing process – the process that removes the dirt and the germs.

The hand doesn’t go back and touch the germ-infested pump the minute it’s been washed (you don’t have to switch the pump off) – it only goes there again when you need to wash your hands again because they’ve got dirty again.

Unless you have obsessive compulsive issues – in which case, you might need some help, but not on the basis of a supposedly germ-infested soap pump.

Now obviously, the advert is aiming to exploit; to make money from the abject terror and ignorance that it builds on. The company has a nice, new soap pump to flog – one that doesn’t need touching, but which simply dispenses soap when it senses your filthy hands nearby. Strange to tell – but obviously entirely coincidentally – a quick check on a supermarket's online site reveals that this gadget is also considerably more expensive than conventional soap dispensers. And that's before you take into account the financial or environmental cost of the batteries that it requires.

We have schools that won’t allow children to play conkers – not because of ‘elf ‘n’ safety gorn mad’ (that’s a myth) but because of schools being terrified of litigation if a child is in any way injured.

This is all, quite simply bonkers.

I am delighted to report, however, that after searching further, I came across www.designasausage.com, a company that, among other things, sells “curing salt”, which is “easier and safer to use than ‘saltpetre’.” Setting aside the question of what, on the basis of the recipes I’ve seen, is difficult about using saltpeter or what is apparently unsafe (unless it refers to the more inconsistent results that come from using the rather ancient ingredient instead of other nitrates that are favoured now – but are probably no easier to find and, who knows how they translate in a menu), at least the job can be done.

I intend to order some and have a bash sometime over the forthcoming holiday.

In the meantime, today has been busy and very satisfying.

The rhubarb sorbet was finished early this afternoon – forking it around every half hour or so for three hours was hardly a major chore.

A French onion soup for lunch was perfectly tasty – although I always seem to forget, in advance, just how long it takes to brown enough onions for such a soup.

Dinner was from a recipe in Leith's Fish Bible: monkfish fillet cooked in a very light curry sauce, with coconut milk, sliced onions, a little garlic and sliced mango, and served with basmati rice. I’ve had the book for some years but have barely cooked out of it, finding it generally rather intimidating. Looking at it this morning, I found myself wondering why.

My confidence in the kitchen grows: the dish was very nice, although I adjusted the cooking time for the fish. The recipe said 10 minutes. I gave it nearer 30.

Increasingly, I’m finding that I give dishes longer – because if I stick rigidly to the times stipulated, it won't be cooked. Whether that’s partly to do with having a fan oven – which still confuses me when it comes to times – I couldn’t say with certainty. But it doesn't just happen in the oven – indeed, this was cooked on the hob.

In recent months particularly, I’ve realised that what is said on packet instructions or even in books can be misleading. For instance, risotto needs longer than recipes often claim – and I only really understood that after trying risottos in a couple of good eateries. They were not what I had previously understood by the phrase ‘al dente’. But okay, that could simply be my misunderstanding of something.

Pasta is another example: if I cook most dried pasta as per the packet instructions, it’s nowhere near as cooked as the pasta we had (and enjoyed) in Venice earlier this year. I’m going to assume that the Italians know what they’re doing when it comes to spaghetti.

Likewise the French. After not having any monkfish for some time, because, following instructions rigidly when I’d tried it, it always seemed quite tough, we discovered in Collioure and Port Vendre this year that in that region at least, it’s cooked rather longer.

But it's down to that confidence again.

However, the triumph of the day was my first ever attempt at making profiteroles – indeed, my first ever attempt at making choux pastry.

Okay, okay: they were not impeccably smooth or round, as you can see from the picture. I need to work on this – in the morning, when chatting with Ed in L’eau a La Bouche, he’d said that that is the really hard part and he’s dead right. But they were crisp and light, and the crème patisserie was not bad at all, though I say so myself. So on taste, I can allow myself great satisfaction.

I must give a little nod at this point to Bill, who blogged about making profiteroles at Ballymaloe a few weeks ago: bearing in mind his experiences, I concentrated particularly hard on making sure my filling was stiff enough, even though I wondered if I was risking it being too stiff at one point.

These, I admit, quite simply made my day. And now I'm pleasantly knackered as well as feeling pleasantly well fed.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The weekend starts here

It’s almost 6pm on Friday evening: the weather outside is frightful, but there’s a warming mug of Bovril by my side, Dino Crocetti’s singing about how It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas and the dinner is cooking gently. The weekend has begun.

I have small tuna steaks to pan fry. They’ll be accompanied by a mushroom gravy – which is nowhere near as strange as it sounds. This is a Rick Stein recipe and works very well.

I’ve diced celery, onion and carrot (that Mirepoix thing again) and these will sweat in a little olive oil before you add white wine, a pinch of dried chili and a handful of dried mushrooms, and reduce.

Once you’ve achieved a good reduction, strain, and then whisk in a little beurre manié (half and half butter and plain flour, blended together) to thicken.

Stein suggests puréed potatoes with garlic: I’m roasting a bulb and simmering a mix of carrot, pumpkin and swede (a matter of what’s in and what needs using up), which will all go through the potato ricer later. There’ll be some wilted spinach on the side.

As I start to pull together ideas for Christmas dinner, a series of ideas have presented themselves – and now I need to do some practice.

Consommé might get a run out this weekend – not a meaty one, though: I’ll try a vegetable one (cheaper, to start with, and thus less of a disaster if it doesn’t quite work).

When I was in Waitrose this afternoon, I picked up a bag of rhubarb. I’ve found a simple recipe for a rhubarb sorbet online at Gastronomy Domine, a very interesting food blog I’ve just discovered, which enticingly advertises itself as offering posts about: “Recipes, reviews and the ruination of my figure”.

Contrast that with another blog that was discussing a pink grapefruit sorbet (another flavour I’m considering), and the writer was suggesting that if, like them, you couldn’t find pink grapefruits, you could use ordinary grapefruit and add an artificial colour.

At which point I swore at the computer screen and rolled my eyes. If someone seriously believes that there is no difference in flavour between a grapefruit and a pink grapefruit, then they have a problem. ‘Just make an ordinary grapefruit sorbet’, I wanted to say. ‘There’d be nothing wrong with that – but there’s something hugely wrong with trying to fake something in such a way.’

The rhubarb will be diced and very gently cooked in a lidded pan with caster sugar and a little water. Then it’ll spend the night draining through a sieve. “Let gravity do its work,” says Gastronomy Domine.

Tomorrow, the cold syrup will be chilled and then popped into a box in the freezer. Sine I don’t have an ice-cream maker, I’ll have to manually whisk it up every half hour or so until I get something that is recognisable as a sorbet.

Finally, in terms of the weekend, I’m going to have a bash at profiteroles. How that will go very much remains to be seen – and as yet, I haven’t a clue what I’m actually going to feed The Other Half and myself for our actual meals!

But that can wait until tomorrow morning for serious consideration.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The fatal lure of shiny things

Yesterday evening, with my southernised bones feeling the cold somewhat, I headed to John Lewis to see if I could find a sweater or two to keep me warmer that I was feeling.

I’d also realised, that morning, that my non-football scarf had gone missing from its place on a peg on the bedroom door. This means, in all likelihood, that Loki – the great hunter of items of clothes – has at some point managed to pull it down and cart it off somewhere to stash it.

Loki loves doing that. Since The Other Half uses a chair as an improvised second wardrobe, we constantly find socks and assorted undies strewn around the flat. She was once spotted dragging one end of a scarf out of a door – with Otto attached to the other end.

She also loves putting things in things. The Other Half found a cufflink in a shoe once. I went to put on a pair of boots the other day – and found a toy mouse inside one of them.

When the weather is good enough for the girls to be out, there’s a little water bowl we put in the garden for them: Loki is ever so fond of picking up twigs and then trying to put them in the water. Doubtless this is for profound reasons, but they remain beyond my comprehension.

Otto doesn't generally seem interested in clothes (except in the sort of tug-of-war scenario mentioned above). She finds it far more amusing to pull things off shelves, from potpourri to coins to pens. Pen sticks in particular are the bee's knees.

So off I toddled into the West End. But there were dangers in store – well, not just in store, but everywhere. Decorations strung across Oxford Street. Shop windows with lovely displays of tempting gifts that you love the look of but wouldn’t actually use. And shiny things.

Once inside John Lewis itself, a combination of live piano music, drifting down through the building, together with many more shiny things, lured me into a dangerously festive mood.

Dear readers, I confess: I wandered around the store’s ‘Christmas shop’ and grinned ridiculously at Santa decorations and displays of, err, shiny things. The way I enjoy bling these days, I might as well be a cat.

And then I wandered around the basement debating whether to buy a festive tablecloth and table decorations too.

Indeed, I swear that, if there hadn’t been A Very Important Football Match on the telly (only a press week prevented me from actually being in Manchester), then some seasonal disc might have burst out of its box and hurled itself joyfully into the CD player when I got home.

I make no guarantees: it might have been Handel’s Messiah, it might have been Dean Martin – but it might have been a collection of No1 singles, including the likes of Mud and Wizard and Slade too.

The virus is affecting me earlier than ever this year, it seems. If I'm not careful, I'll lose any pretence at bah humbuggery – and there’s still plenty of time for it to get a whole lot worse!

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

It’s beginning to look a lot like C*r*s*m*s

You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a most innocent thing to do: that quick dive into Pret a Manger first thing on a bright and cold morning, to pick up a hot chocolate and a pot of porridge.

But everywhere I turned in the shop today, the usual wrappings had been replaced with ones showing snowdrops on a red background.

Now that Halloween and Bonfire Night are behind us, the commercial push toward C*r*s*m*s is well and truly under way.

In one way at least, the increasing Americanisation and commercialisation of Halloween has been a blessing – having something between summer and 25 December to push actually seems to have meant that shops haven’t been starting the C*r*s*m*s onslaught quite as early.

Now, in case anyone’s confused, I like C*r*s*m*s. But I work in an office where the excitement starts getting to some people in September. And it simply seems like wishing time away to start seriously getting in the mood before the start of Advent at least.

Not that I haven’t made a start: there are a number of presents already waiting in a cupboard, while others have been ordered. I have even purchased some new lights to hang in the house. And when I needed to get some cake tins so that I could transport the contents of the bake-a-thon into work, I opted for a stack of seasonally–decorated ones from John Lewis.

And now I am just starting to consider the festive food. As mentioned here, I’ve made chutney with a view to it being ready for C*r*s*m*s.

I’m on the cusp of creating a spreadsheet to plan when I’ll actually shop – more to the point, when my preferred shops and markets will be open for business.

And the first part of the C*r*s*m*s Day dinner menu is in place – possibly. On Monday evening, the remains of Sunday’s pheasant was turned into game stock: the carcase simmered for a couple of hours with roughly chopped celery, garlic, carrot, onion and leek, then strained into two tubs and, after being allowed to cool, popped in the freezer. That might make the base of a game consommé – I’ll have to work out the clarification process and think about some sort of garnish, but it may be a start.

The former isn’t actually particularly intimidating – more just a matter of care and patience. It seems that you need to take your stock, add more chopped celery, carrot and onion (a ‘holy trinity’ that is known as ‘Mirepoix’ in France – you learn something new every day!), chopped or ground meat, tomatoes and egg whites, which are then simmered very gently.

Gradually, the protein in the egg white gets sticky and attracts the fat from the liquid, creating a messy-looking ‘raft’ at the top. The acid from the tomatoes also helps to bring out impurities in the liquid.

You can then chill the consommé in the fridge, enabling you to skim off more fat from the top with a cheesecloth (which also means you can make it well in advance). Or if you put the consommé in a large, shallow container, you can drag wide strips of parchment paper across it, and tiny amounts of fat will cling to that.

It would seem possible to use dried mushrooms instead of more meat – and then possibly garnish it with shavings of truffle. In fact, this could be quite an easy starter.

Discussing this over lunch with The Other Half, I observed that, apparently, one garnish is savoury profiteroles. Now I was scoffing at the idea of trying that, but it suddenly occurred to me that I’ve never made profiteroles (or choux pastry, for that matter). Is that an idea starting to form for dessert?

For goodness sake – what has happened in the last 10 years? This is me here and I’m entirely seriously thinking making consommé and profiteroles!

For a main course, my ideas are somewhat simpler – steak au poivre.

But hey – we'll deal with these as time progresses. For the moment, I'm going to pretend that I am oblivious to the time of year!

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A triumph, a semi-success and feline gourmets

Setting aside all the preserving, the weekend provided a semi-success and a total triumph on the cooking front.

The semi-success was Saturday night’s meal. Ever desperate to find ‘different’ ways of serving essentially simple foods – in other words, not every plate consisting of basic meat or fish in one third, basic starchy stuff in another and basic veg occupying the final third – I’d managed to come up with a somewhat more interesting idea.

The plan was to oven roast some fish and serve it with a small mushroom risotto and then some courgette fritters.

“Interesting” perhaps, but also a tad more complicated than what I was attempting to improve on.

I got cod – that was easy to roast, with a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. The risotto was easy too – I simply had to remember not to use as much rice as I would if it were intended as a main course in its own right. In this case, I used bottled chicken stock, heated gently with dried porcini it it.

I sautéed a few chopped chestnut mushrooms, added a little white wine and a squeeze of lemon to those.

To serve, I topped off the risotto with a little grated truffle.

All of which left the total experiment of the day, the courgette fritters. A courgette was grated, salted and left. But I then – for some reason or other – made the mistake of rinsing it, which then made it difficult to squeeze dry. But anyway, that was combined with some breadcrumbs and around half an egg, for make a rather sloppy mess.

It made four smallish balls, which were rolled in plain flour and then left to sit in the fridge for a few minutes until the actual cooking was advanced enough and the vegetable oil hot enough to fry the fritters.

Amazingly, with care I managed to get them each. into the pan in once piece. And they came out in that state too.

Not sure about the result, though: the taste was okay, but it was an odd texture; very light in a rather strange way – almost like fried soufflés, if that makes any sense.

So, generally, the meal was a success, but I remain unsure about the fritters.

Sunday was another game day. I picked up a pheasant from Andy on the market (and yes, there really was a conversation about ‘pheasant pluckers’).

Now I’ve not tried a great deal of feathered game before – except duck, really – and haven’t felt that, when I have, I’ve really cracked it.

This time, I used a River Café Easy Two recipe, browning the bird on all sides in butter and oil, and then adding halved garlic cloves and bacon, and then roasting it in Chardonnay. Now the recipe specified pancetta, but I had a pack of streaky bacon open, so I used that – and before popping it in the oven, put three of the bacon slices over the bird’s back.

It was basted a couple of times and cooked for longer than specified (my oven is a fan on, so times and temperatures have to be adjusted – the former is something I’m barely getting used to).

In the meantime, I cut the cores out of a load of savoy cabbage leaves, chopped them into strips and then popped in boiling water for around eight minutes. Drain well, and then sauté with more of the halved garlic cloves.

When the bird’s ready, remove and rest, pop the cabbage and garlic into the wine, and reduce a little. It was all served it with riced potatoes.

And that was my triumph of the weekend – the first time I’ve really felt that I’ve cooked game and it’s been really worth it: plenty of taste, but not dry.

Not that the weekend’s foodyism was restricted to the human members of the household.

For a late Sunday breakfast I had toasted a thin slice of bread, buttered it and added the contents of one of a selection of tiny tins of potted meat that I bought in Paris last July.

Otto, who would know from a mile away when I’ve opened one of these small tins, came hurtling through because she also knows that I fully intend to share it with her.

Later, she was determined to see what the soup of the day was too, despite its lack of meat. Not that that ever stops her.

But I can never forget how, when she came to us, I could feel the gaps between her tiny ribs, and her coat was like sheepskin: clearly, she was the runt of the litter who’d not been able to get enough of the teat. Neither her sister not Boudi are so interested in our (well, my) food – so bearing that history in mind, I am particularly tolerant. And besides, what’s the point of having ‘pets’ around the house if you don’t want to treat them as members of your family?

Fortunately, even my little feline gourmet didn’t seem bothered by the pheasant – although the evening was to provide a surprise when not only did she fancy some cheese, but Loki and Boudi also decided that cheese was on their menu too.

This, in the latter’s case, is pretty much unprecedented. Presumably she’d decided that, if the kittens were having something, she wasn’t missing out – no matter what it was!

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Self preservation society

There are so many things in the food world that you imagine are complicated to make – or perhaps it’s simply that we’ve all got so used to buying them ready-made that we don’t consider actually doing it ourselves.

Preserving is one such thing – and now I’ve realised how easy it is – and how rewarding and how good the results can be – I want to do more and more.

For some time, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing my own duck confit, but had had no luck buying duck legs on Broadway Market (and you can forget supermarkets for such things).

If that sounds a bit extravagant, it should actually work out cheaper than buying them ready-made. I bought a tin of two a few weeks ago – it made a lovely mid-week supper – but the tin was over a tenner. This is a bit bonkers, really, since it’s essentially peasant food.

Nipping to Borough Market briefly, I picked up two very large duck legs for comfortably under £5. Okay, I needed to buy the duck fat too, but that can be recycled over and over for confit once I’ve got going and assuming I decided to do it again. So in other words, after an initial investment (still be cheaper than the tinned variety), my own duck confit will get cheaper and cheaper.

Using the recipe in Hot Sun, Cool Shadow by Angela Murrills (she also points out that there are as many views on how to make duck confit as there are people who make it and, France being France, it causes arguments about which way is best), I mixed course salt with black peppercorns, a couple of cloves of finely chopped garlic and a couple of a bay leaves, and then rubbed it into the legs. Then they went in a bowl, were covered in cling film and spent the night in the fridge.

This morning – brighter, clearer and colder than it’s been of late – saw three jars of duck fat decanted into a pan and heated to shimmering, at which stage the duck legs were carefully submerged in the liquid fat, a lid popped on and the heat turned to a minimum.

Being big legs, they got around 90 minutes like that. Then, after being tested with a skewer, they were allowed to cool a little before being carefully lifted out and placed in a large – and sterilised – jar. The fat was then brought back to the boil and sieved into the jar, over the duck legs.

At which point: ‘Argh! I haven’t got enough fat to completely cover them!’ The end of the legs were uncovered. Fortunately, La Bouche is open on a Sunday, so I bolted up the road and they found me two small jars in a backroom. Saved! That was heated while I donned Marigolds and washed up a number of very greasy items, and voilà! Now the legs are safely covered with golden fat, slowly beginning to cool.

And so to the next part of the weekend’s preservation experiments.

Having opened a bottle of liquid pectin to save my quince and medlar jelly last week, I wanted to use it up. So I was contemplating all sorts of jelly and jams.

But once up on Broadway Market, I spotted some delightful mini plum tomatoes on the Isle of Wight tomato stall (which won’t be around for much longer this year).

Earlier in the week, I’d seen a recipe for a tomato and chili jelly online, but it slowly dawned on me that what would be better was a tomato and chili chutney – perfect for the forthcoming festive season.

Like so many other things, chutney is not something I’ve made before. So, with chillis in the house and two punnets of plum toms in my bag, I headed back to the kitchen via the internet, where I checked out further recipes.

The one that caught my eye was a Jamie Oliver one for ‘cheeky chilli pepper chutney’.

So I decided to use that as a guide. I took my tomatoes and halved and de-seeded them (around three dozen of the little lovelies), which also served to remind my newly scarred hands of the morning’s play-fight with Otto: ‘Ouch!’

After draining on kitchen paper, all the halves were placed skin side up on a foil-covered baking tray and placed under a hot grill (about 10cm from the heat source). Two red chillis were also halved, roughly de-seeded (there’s a point to chili seeds, whereas tomato seeds add nothing by way of flavour) and roasted in the same way.

It takes around 15 minutes under my grill, but you can easily tell when they’re done: the skins are charred and, in the case of the tomatoes, were already rising off the fruits as though trying to remove themselves. I removed all the skins, roughly chopped the chillis (the tomatoes didn’t need it) and decanted all the fruits into a bowl.

Then came a small onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, finely chopped and set to soften in a little olive oil. Improvising, I added green peppercorns (there was a jar in the fridge) and a couple of bay leaves.

When the onion and garlic were softened, the tomatoes and chillis went into the pan, with salt, a very roughly estimated amount of brown sugar and an equally roughly estimated amount of light Balsamic vinegar (one for dipping bread). And then it was all left to simmer away.

Still doing this on something of a wing and a prayer, I decided to consult Delia, the goddess of cookery basics. The Complete Cookery Course revealed that the key to knowing when a chutney is ready is that you can take a spoon through the mix – and it doesn’t instantly fill with the vinegar.

That stage was reached in relatively short order and the mix was decanted into a small jar. It’s cook’s privilege to test, of course, and on the basis of a licked spoon, it’s going to be gorgeous and with a very nice bit of heat.

Delia says you shouldn’t touch a chutney for three months: now it’s ‘only’ seven weeks until C*r*s*m*s, so it won’t have quite as long as she asserts, but at least by doing it now, it’ll have some time to mature a bit.

I look forward to some with cheese. And talking of cheese, last week I found something called Kidderton Ash in Waitrose. Courtesy of Butler’s Farmhouse Cheeses, this is a lovely, delicate goat’s cheese that’s dusted with ash before it’s skin forms. Very nice.

And my rapid sortie to Borough gave me the opportunity to pick up some wonderful Gorwydd Caerphilly and an aged Gouda: the latter is lovely and nutty – the damage to the reputation of Dutch cheeses by the plastic, low-fat (it’s beloved of dieters) excuse for cheese that is Edam reminds me of the damage caused to the reputation of German wines by Blue Nun and Black Tower.

But such delights aside – although never out of reach – it has been a very satisfying weekend on the preservation front. Now all I have to do is wait.