Thursday, 31 March 2011

Back on planet Earth

It cannot, of course, always be a day of dazzling cuisine.

And today, incapable of managing any enthusiasm for lunch from the deli or Pret, I resorted to the sort of fodder that cannot disappoint, since you expect nothing of it except some calories and the quick rush of salt and sugar and artificial flavours.

Mind, I have made the interesting discovery that Cheesy Wotsits are clearly not made with those who wear dentures in mind: what starts out as nice and crisp, turns into a mush that clings to the plastic and blows raspberries at your tongue's effort to sweep it away.

Tomorrow is a day of TOIL after working last Saturday, so I have three days in which, yet again, to attempt to plan packed lunches for the following week. Because the current situation is, frankly, poor – and I have only myself to blame.

To start with, I'm not really much of a fan of sandwiches. That's not a statement of sandwiches not being any good or anything, but simply a subjective preference. With the exception of a recently-discovered pleasure in cucumber sandwiches (white bread, proper butter, organic cucumber and good salt), others are, by and large, convenient.

Pret's sandwiches often seem crammed with rocket – and I got bored with the British fetish for rocket some time ago.

Perhaps rather oddly, I do have a habit of picking up a prawn mayo butty from M&S or Boots when I'm off on a train journey.

Thinking of sandwiches, though, it’s funny how memories come back to you. In recent weeks, a mental movie has been flickering its way into my consciousness.

It’s the north west of England in the 1970s, and the women of the church are making sandwiches for some social event.

They take bags of sliced, white factory bread and, with a practised movement, a sweep of yellow spread goes on one way and, with the knife’s return, is almost all whipped right off again, the fleeting promise of fatty generosity blown away.

It’s a team effort as they stand next to each other, all floral housecoats and tightly permed heads bobbing in chatter, piling sliced bread into a new tower, ready for filling.

I don’t remember what happened next. I cannot even really be sure that this is a real, personal memory – although I can’t think of the collective cultural memory that it would be part of.

It’s probably present now because I’ve been making sandwiches for The Other Half to take with him ‘oop north’ for Rugby League matches in recent weeks.

He might prefer an olive oil spread to butter, but I am not as stingy with it when spreading as those women were.

As I see them in my mind’s eye, the housecoats were all various shades of pink. My mother had one. They were nylon and had that quality of giving off static electricity.

There would have been tea – my mother, who doesn't like that drink, long complained that it was so hard to get a coffee at church events, and in the those days, her idea of a coffee would have been limited to something out of a jar. Nescafé was the brand of choice, I recall: given her snobbery about a whole range of small things, it occurs that Maxwell House was probably the ITV of instant coffees.

Packed lunches, if she had to make them for school trips, would invariably involve sandwiches. The only filling I recall was from those pots of meat or fish paste that you can still find in shops today, although there might be a single triangle of Dairylea cheese.

I think, if memory is serving me correctly here, that that was the limit on cheese for us until we were much older: cheese – like coffee – was for grown ups.

So lunches will not involve sandwiches, that much is certain.

I read a suggestion somewhere, earlier this week, that all you needed to do was make extra dinner the night before and keep some of that to take with you. That evening, I was cooking mushroom risotto. Some dishes improve with keeping. That wouldn't.

It will have to be salads – possibly with tinned sardines (there are tons in the cupboard – or goat's cheese or even the contents of dinky tins of meat I bought in France last year and sometimes lavish on toast for an indulgent breakfast when I'm not at work. The art form, though, is the dressing. Too much and everything gets soggy and the box leaks; too little and it's dry.

The thinking cap will have to be unpacked and tried for size.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Dinner with Raymond and Bruno

It had been the sort of day when the sun had gone AWOL, leaving us with greyness and the barely-interested efforts of the rain.

So what could possibly cheer me up on such a day?

Well, around two months ago, I picked up a tweet from Raymond Blanc that advertised a charity dinner that he and Bruno Loubet were going to give at Bistrot Bruno Loubet in late March for Hospitality Action, an ‘industry benevolent organisation’ that’s over 170 years old, and helps workers in the industry who are in need.

Giddy with delight at having such an opportunity, and so close to home, I snapped up tickets.

And then, as the day itself came closer, worked myself into an ever more nervous state: nervous that we’d find ourselves in an uncomfortable environment; nervous that I’d landed us in a situation where we’d be expected to fork out loads more cash; nervous that I’d manage to completely misunderstand the dress code (‘lounge suit’) and look utterly out of place, and nervous that it would be a let down in some way after all my own excitement.

None were to have any foundation in reality.

The evening started at the Zetter Townhouse – a 13-bedroom Georgian townhouse, with interiors by Russell Sage – which is a new addition to the Zetter Hotel, just across the cobbles of St John’s Square and the home of Bistrot Bruno Loubet.

The townhouse doesn’t open until April, but we were afforded a look inside for the champagne and canapés part of the evening.

The canapés were little warm Parmesan biscuits – soft, delightfully cheesy, with a pleasant greasiness but yet still beautifully crumbling – and twists of buttery, light puff pastry that held pieces of anchovy saltiness in their embrace.

Moving across to the restaurant, already starting to relax, we found ourselves seated at a table of eight. Three of us were women – all of whom had recently made their own duck confit! So it was clearly a serious foodie gathering and indeed, all very friendly.

After a couple of initial speeches to introduce the evening, including one by Blanc himself – as enthusiastic and passionate as ever, explaining that it is a very cruel, hard industry, and that more legislation is needed to protect those in it – we played a little game and did a little light fundraising.

All of which served to further ensure that nobody was doing airs and graces or feeling awkward. It was most certainly not that sort of affair.

But what of the food? After all, this was might have been charity, but it was also dinner!

To start, we had a spring vegetable salad with air-dried duck, Parmesan mousse and Banyuls jelly.

Oh my! The duck was stunning – and to think that it was exactly what Blanc had been demonstrating on TV just over a week earlier. I really have to work out how to hang a duck breast in the fridge to make this.

The baby vegetables were so small that I cannot imagine any shop selling them – which pretty much declares that they came from Blanc’s own organic garden at Le Manoir. Baby carrots, peas and broad beans were accompanied by asparagus that was as thin as a thick chive, but still packing wonderful taste.

The jelly added a different texture and a sharpness, while the tiny, piped blobs of Pamesan mousse brought a sweet softness to a dish of exquisite freshness.

Next up was a mackerel and prawn burger, with a piquillo ketchup, a potato ‘fish finger’ and cucumber salad – a really funny riff on fast food, and full of more tastes and textures.

The ‘burger’ was dense but full of delicate flavour. The ‘fish finger’ was smooth inside but with a wonderfully crisp casing, while the ketchup gave off the lovely flavours of roasted peppers – and reality to the word ‘piquant’.

The little salad – itself a play on the garnish you get in a fast food joint – was thinly sliced red onion with ribbons of lightly cured cucumber and dill. And it too was a delight.

I just about had a view of the kitchen. The culinary gods were joking and chatting, and it was with great pleasure that I saw Blanc pick up a ladle occasionally and taste something – he really does do what he tells everyone else to do in A Taste of My Life.

The burger was followed by tournedos of rabbit, with braised celery, puréed pumpkin, a deep, dark jus and lovage pesto – so many hallmarks of Loubet’s cooking.

The rabbit, which was a tight, deep circle of flesh, wrapped in bacon and with a little rabbit liver inside (see the description here of his hare royale), was stunning. The first taste made your eyes flutter closed automatically in deep pleasure and awe.

And the pesto was a wonderful shot across the sweetness of the dish; a contrast that added so much to it.

It was more Blanc for dessert, with a white chocolate mousse, as light as air, on a base of dark chocolate and all encased in a wafer thin dome of marbled dark and white chocolate, with shortbread nougatine and orange vincotto.

A dish of real beauty, amazing skill and fabulous tastes and textures.

Stuffed alomist to immobility, I managed to eat just one of the petit fours that came at the end – a single macaron – of a meal that I can barely do justice to in words.

And there was no skimping on the wine either.

One of the things that fascinates me about Blanc is his ability to combine different textures and tastes and even temperatures. So shortly after having read his own thoughts on all this, and while Kitchen Secrets is still playing on BBC2, to be able to actually experience these things was an awesome learning experience – and a quite dazzling culinary one.

It might all look wonderful – it does – but this is not simply looks for the sake of looks. The food tastes sublime. There are so many contrasts, yet every dish comes together beautifully as a balanced whole.

After, I spoke to one of the organisers and asked if it was possible to meet the man himself and get him to autograph A Taste of My Life, which was in my bag.

Unfortunately, he’d had to go – it’s a fair way back to Oxfordshire. But she offered to take the book and get him to sign it, before sending it back to me: it was a delightfully kind offer that I have taken up.

I did, however, manage to speak to Bruno Loubet – the evidence is at the top of this post, as The Other Half joined me for a pic (and no comments about our size, please!).

He’s utterly charming, gracious and down to Earth. Indeed, when the friends who had initially recommended the restaurant were themselves back there a couple of weeks ago, they were astonished – and charmed – to see him washing up in the kitchen.

All in all, a fabulous night. And it raised over £17,000 for a most worthwhile cause. Thank you to everyone for making it such a wonderful experience, from the Zetter's owners, to the staff (who as always, provided lovely service), to Hospitality Action's team and, of course to the wonderful chefs and their team in the kitchen.

Monday, 28 March 2011

High end and low end experiments

After the excitement of Saturday, yesterday was a bit of a double experiment.

First, after around three months, this was the day I'd chosen to see just whether my first attempt at duck confit was edible. I had been worrying that, even though the top of legs were covered completely and safely, somehow I'd have done something wrong and, when they came out, they'd pong to high heaven.

It took some doing, but eventually I was able to haul the pair of big legs out of the thick, creamy fat that has been protecting them for all that time. And protecting them it most certainly had. There was nothing to fret about. I brushed off as much of the liquid fat as possible and then roasted them for half an hour at 170˚C.

Good taste and certainly flaky. Okay, maybe not the best in the world, but darned good, nonetheless – and more so given that it was a first effort.

Served with courgettes and bread, it worked fine.

But in contrast to this wonderful peasant dish, the rest of my cooking day was somewhat more of a culinary challenge.

Taking a couple of ideas from David Everitt-Matthias's Dessert Recipes from Le Champignon Sauvage, I set about a really complicated dessert – in three parts!

The first part, which was my own, was a jelly, made from rhubarb and strawberries, initially cooked in a caster sugar and a little pink grapefruit juice, plus some fresh ginger, before being strained and then having softened gelatine leaves added to it, before it was decanted into a mould and popped in the fridge.

The second part of this dessert was a white chocolate mousse – I had white chocolate with cardamom – which was from the book. It started with cream whipped to ribbon stage (except that my cream was already thicker than that).

Caster sugar and egg yolks are beaten together and then whisked in a bowl over simmering water.

A little more cream is heated and gelatine added.

The white chocolate is melted carefully over more simmering water.

Once everything's been brought together, it goes into the fridge.

Now it's never easy cutting recipe amounts down for just two people, so that may not have helped.

But I found myself suddenly realising just why Raymond Blanc's recipes – and chef's notes – are so bloody good. In this book, there doesn't even seem to be a note about what egg sizes he uses. And it's all very well saying: 'X leaves of gelatine', but gelatine leaves come in different sizes, so one is still left wondering 'how much?'

There's a side of me – the cynical side – that thinks that, if you perhaps skate over such things in a book like this, you won't really be giving away any secrets. I'm sure it wasn't deliberate.

The book will still be of use – and the pictures are pure (so to speak) food porn.

But the point is, the resultant mousse may be far from what it should be. And perhaps that's why I didn't like it much.

At least the third part of the dessert was easy – well, sort of. Dark chocolate is melted gently over simmering water and then spread over a flat, smooth surface. Everitt-Matthias recommends a piece of acetate, but foil over a baking tray, smoothed carefully, does fine.

The theory after that is to cut the thin chocolate slice into geometric shapes to provide a sort of architecture when you assemble the final dessert.

Next lesson – don't try to cut such chocolate with a dry knife. Remember to use a hot, damp one. I didn't get any perfect shapes. Still, you can't go wrong with pieces of chocolate at any time.

It'd didn't look like I'd pictured in my mind's eye – there was so little jelly that that had to be halved rather than cut through horziontally, leaving a thin disc each – but it had a good, intense fruit taste.

The chocolate, as you can see, didn't quite provide the structure I'd hoped for. The drizzle on the plate is Balsamic – good idea, given the strawberry involvement, but it should have been thickened (agar agar or arrowroot?).

So hardly a raving success to the posh bit of the meal. Still, that's how one learns. Next time ...

Sunday, 27 March 2011

There IS an alternative

In London yesterday, at least half a million people marched to protest not simply against something (the cuts), but to say that they were not inevitable – that there is an alternative.

I’m taking the half a million figure from the Daily Mail of all publications – but since it can hardly be accused of being a bastion of ‘loony lefties’, one can assume that it’s at least a genuine minimum of the numbers present.

The picture you’ve already seen is of Ghurka veterans who marched – so hardly ‘the usual suspects’. But that was always going to be the real story. (The one below is of an elderly supporter of the Robin Hood Tax).

Personally, I’d put it closer to a million, after standing in the middle of the march for over two hours – and then finding later that they kept on coming for at least another two hours after that.

I know people who were directed all the way to Fleet Street to join the back of the march as people walked some way to even begin the route proper from Hungerford Bridge.

For me it was a work day, armed only with my camera and a brief of snapping as many UNISON regional and branch banners as possible (with as many members with them!) and also a few odds and sods for the staff magazine.

After actually managing to get myself organised enough to eat a breakfast at home – I went to work on two soft boiled eggs, as per Fay Weldon’s advertising famous jingle – it was down to Hackney Road and a 26 bus to Waterloo Bridge, leaving a short hop along the Strand and down to the Embankment alongside the Savoy Theatre.

Which was rather funny, in a coincidental sort of way, since I’m just reading a biography of the great chef Escoffier, and the story has just reached the beginning of his time at the Savoy, working with Cèsar Ritz for Richard D’Oyly Carte.

This, of course, is the same D’Oyly Carte who gave the world Gilbert & Sullivan and whose own opera company in his Savoy Theatre, staged their operas (hence G&S followers often being called ‘Savoyards’).

The theatre itself was the first building in the world to be completely lit by electricity – a fact I was reminded of when I walked down the narrow passageway down to the gardens at the front of the hotel and spotted a plaque on the wall of the theatre to this effect.

Personally, my love of G&S is one of few things that my parents gave me. So there was an added piquancy to that walk.

In the gardens I spotted a bust of Sir Arthur Sullivan. Wonderful! But where was the comparable one to WS Gilbert?

However, moving on, I hit the Embankment at around 9.30am, to find colleagues who had been there for around two hours, unloading and preparing all the materials they’d worked to prepare. I felt like a dilettante by comparison.

It was a cool morning, but with the sun showing signs of burning through. I started taking my pictures.

The march was scheduled to start at 11am. Now that was never going to happen – it was around 45 minutes later.

Bur what an atmosphere!

Seriously good humoured – the police were fantastic.

Indeed, I hear from UNISON colleagues that, as UNISON police staff branches went past (these involve scene of crime staff, photographers, call centre staff – in other words, ‘frontline’ staff) they were close to applauding.

Personally, I chatted with officers and had to work with them professionally during the day (to get on Hungerford Bridge for photographs, for instance) and they were relaxed and we had a great atmosphere going.

So here’s a good chance to thank my police colleagues too. You do a thankless job, guys and gals, but a very important one. Thank you.

Indeed, a Parliamentary committee, on Friday, had applauded how well the TUC and Metropolitan Police had worked together to plan the day’s events. Nobody with an ounce of sense wanted this to be anything other than a safe and positive day.

As the march began, I was in a traffic island just before Hungerford Bridge. The atmosphere was electric – the noise form the UNISON delegation at the front, with vuvuzelas and whistles, was just stunning.

Goosebumps ran up and down my spine; tears pricked my eyes. It was utterly incredible. It was a privilege to be there.

They eventually set off. I snapped away, but with an ever-increasing sense of awe as it became clear just how many people were there.

My editor gave me chocolate to keep me going – thank you, Diana!

Eventually, I dipped into my rucksack to pull out a can of V (one of those caffeine drinks, but I prefer it to Red Bull). In fear of not being able to find a loo for hours, it was my first liquid of the day.

And still they came. There was one young man, dressed in a tail coat and with a lovely tray with tea pot and cup and saucer, who was carrying a small, hand-made placard that said: ‘Teapots against kettling’. The photo will go up later!

There was wit and humour everywhere. There was no aggression and no threat – well, apart from the toy town anarchists who slouched past at one point, faces covered.

It makes me feel old to say it, but some of them were really SO small that I felt that I wanted to ask them: ‘Do you mother and father really know where you are and what you’re doing?’

They gave off the only ‘attitude’ of the day. But I found myself worrying that some of them were too young t really make educated choices about what they were doing; that they had been suckered into whatever was being planned, and that they might seriously suffer for it.

UNISON member Mary Locke, who is a hospital housekeeper in Birmingham, had hoped to see me – indeed, had promised to bring me lunch (it’s not easy carrying a picnic when you’ve got a camera around your neck), but the march was so vast we ended up with no chance of spotting each other.

I’m sure Mary would agree that that was the better outcome – although I’ve had one of Mary’s wonderful cobs, full of lovely, moist cheese and coleslaw, before, so I did regret not getting one this time!

At another point, UNISON member Tracey Lambert darted out of the mass to tell me that she loved my blog. Wow! That makes me feel really humble and very happy. Thank you, Tracey.

And eventually, when I broke away and managed to get back toward the Embankment gardens, I bumped into Sue and Alan, who coaxed me out of being too hyped and gave me Pepsi and the encouragement to sit down for a fag and chat – and they’d been on the road since the early hours trying to get down in time!

I then hopped a cab to get back to the office as quickly as possible (400-odd pictures to go through, process and upload to the interwebby!).

After bidding farewell to Sue and Alan at Charing Cross, I hopped a cab and was approaching Centre Point, down a small street, when it was suddenly gridlocked by toy town anarchists.

My cabby was bemused – not least because at least two of them were pushing big bins down the road.

‘What are they doing with those?’ he asked. I responded that they were probably heading to Oxford Street to bring down the nasty capitalist state by smashing a few shop windows with said bins or using them as barricades.

Then one – a woman who really cannot have been much younger than me, but at least she wasn't covering her face – decided that, as she had a camera, she would make a big thing of photographing the number plate of the cab I was in.

Wow! Photographing the number plate of a stationary black cab! I bet that's going to advance the cause, big time.

As it happened, I hadn't packed my own camera away at that stage – it was still around my neck – so as she then walked past my car door window, I picked it up and snapped her.

Cue hysteria – fortunately the cabbie himself was in hysterics by this point – and me giving her the finger in the most insouciant way I could.

They're pathetic. In some ways, they make me even more angry than I am with this government. After all – with them around, the government doesn’t need agents provocateurs, it’s got perfect propaganda material made for it, which detracts beautifully from at least a quarter of a million people marching peacefully!

It makes the ‘infantile disorder’ of Trotskyism look politically mature by comparison.

But it was an amazing day. I feel remarkably privileged to have been a part of it in the way I was.

However, let’s diversify a little.

It never ceases to amaze me how some people currently assert that complaints about the bankers are a result of jealousy.

Let’s be clear: I consider myself very lucky at this point in my life. I work for a very good employer, with (by and large) wonderful people and certainly FOR wonderful people (see above).

Would I like more money? Well don’t be stupid – of course I would! But not mega millions. Just enough to make me feel safe and give me the chance to explore some things. I don’t need to take over countries or anything like that.

But in the last year or so, I have increasingly heard the response from some people that those who object to what this government is doing are ‘jealous’.

And herein lies the true tragedy.

When did it become ‘jealousy’ to care about anyone other than yourself and your immediate family?

When did it become ‘jealousy’ to care about your community – the ‘big society’, surely?

When did it become ‘jealousy’ to work in a role that was not just about how much money you could make, but about how much good you could do?

When did it become ‘jealousy’ to have X amount of income – and still care?

I hate labels. I spent the years from just before I was 40 adopting labels (and manifestos) instead of actually attempting to think through things for myself.

So you might (or might not!) forgive me if I now say that I don’t happily give myself any label, even when I essentially agree with whatever we’re talking about.

But in many conversations, I still get accused of being a ‘champagne socialist’.

What a daft soubriquet. Where is the ‘socialist’ teaching that socialists shouldn’t have the best in life? Simple. It doesn’t exist.

Indeed, a socialist would almost certainly stress that ‘nothing is too good for the workers’. Including champagne, no doubt.

Maybe – just maybe – once we learn ALL these things, we can move forward.

Last night, after I’d finished work, The Other Half (who’d been slogging it out in the office all day) and I went down to Waitrose and picked up dab fillets for £1.98 for two. They’re small but tasty. I did them with new potatoes from Majorca and a bit of salad and an orange butter that I concocted quickly.

My world is not about jealousy: my world view is based on a real, serious knowledge of how utterly shitty it is trying to live on nothing – and a real belief that everyone should have the chance to have a real life.

But finally, thank you to everyone who took part in the real demo. And to the stewards and police and everyone else. Screw the toy town anarchists – we rock. They're a bunch of infantile twerps!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

No pint of lager and not even a packet of crisps

After a Budget that saw council tax fall in most places, leaving many of us around 35p better off each year, I found myself musing on just what I could spend this windfall on.

Now I’d want to be sensible, of course. And would it be possible to be much more sensible than a loaf of bread? Well, a small, white Hovis loaf from Ocado or Tesco is currently retailing at 66p. So I’ll have to save a bit before I can make myself a butty.

A pint of milk is 45p. A 150g tin of baked beans (same sources as above) is 38p – so near, but yet so far! And a packet of crisps seems to start from well over that 35p mark.

In less of tweedy two-piece and sensible shoes mode, according to the Telegraph, the Budget has hiked cigarettes to around £7 a packet of 20: I’d be able to afford a whole one fag!

There’d be no chance of anything boozy to numb the pain though, but I’d only be a penny away from a 330ml can of D&G Old Jamaica ginger beer.

At least, at 32p for a second-class stamp, I'll be able to send someone a letter to tell them of my predicament.

You could be excused for asking, given what will have to be cut in order to fund this dramatic tax cut, was it really worth it?

In my neck of the London woods – Hackney: the second poorest borough in the country, apparently – the population is around 212,200, at a density of around 28,835 people per square mile. The council isn’t giving us this 35p bonus, but freezing council tax at present levels.

While this is happening and to help ensure that frontline services are not cut (no library closures, I’m pleased to discover), central government funding is still being slashed, so council tenants are to see inflation-busting rent increases of 6.1%, while leaseholders face a rise of an average of 5.1% in the fees they pay.

It’s difficult to see how either will help the economy to grow, since one will reduce the amount people have to spend, thus affecting local retailers – and retail has become so important to the national economy that quarterly retail figures are now a major news story – and the other will make trading more expensive, and will particularly hit small, independent businesses.

But this isn’t just the rambling of some old (middle-aged!) ‘leftie’: according to, the Budget “delivered good news for small businesses and lower-level workers” (unless the former get hit locally, as above, presumably), “but offers little hope for hospitality operators as a whole”.

That’s what Davis Coffer Lyons is saying, claiming that “measures to increase the basic rate tax threshold increases from £7,435 to £8,100 and extend the rate relief holiday for small businesses … is [sic] not enough to sustain the future of the industry”.

“The Budget offers little help to alleviate pressure on operators’ suffering and does little to kick-start consumer spending,” says Mark Sheehan, managing director of Coffer Corporate Leisure.

“Altogether, the net increase in income tax and national insurance against savings for many earners will hit consumer spending further. This is compounded with the recent VAT increase in December and the outstripping of wage increases by inflation – a hard combination to bear for operators.

“With 4-5% predicted inflation for the year above compared to 1.7% predicted growth in the economy, this further illustrates a very tough trading environment for the leisure and hospitality sector, which employs over 2 million people and adds £19 billion to the UK economy every year.

“Operators need more help than they are being offered in this budget to help lead the economy out of recession and creating local jobs at a time when national unemployment levels are so high. In provincial areas especially, the hospitality sector should be better supported in keeping jobs alive and therefore helping to sustain the economy.”

There was an interesting news report on the other night, looking (in part) at how French president Nicolas Sarkozy is having to back track on his ambitions of dragging that country into the sort of laissez faire economic state that has proved so damaging to the UK and US.

But that’s a subject for another day – although: fingers crossed.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

When you're weary

It was the sort of day that inspired a need to wear Birkies into the office and belt forth a heartfelt rendition of Rogers & Hammerstein's barnstorming opener to Oklahoma! – indeed, I'm sure that if there'd been any corn anywhere near, it would have been as high as an elephant's eye.

That doesn't mean I'm not knackered. This defending public services malarky is hard work. Not, I hasten to add, that I'm complaining. I like my work; I like the people I work with and I'm fortunate enough to work for an organisation whose general aims I am in accordance with.

But it's a couple of years since I was 21 and there are times when I seem to feel the pace just a little more than I used to.

That, as I noted a few of days ago, was what produced a night of getting home and feeling like nothing more on the food front than a cup of Bovril and a cucumber sandwich.

Indeed, I think tiredness actually blunts your appetite – not just renders you less willing to spend quality kitchen time cooking.

It was the same today – and not just for me: The Other Half is similarly tired.

The lengthening days and wonderful weather did mean that we could sit out in the evening for an hour with cups of tea, while the cats bounced around in the glow of early evening. I think that's another sign of getting older: in recent years, each winter has seemed to drag longer and longer. I miss the sun. The minute it really appears again, my spirits revive.

So what does this mean on the food front?

I'm possibly more aware than ever that good food can boost – not only a sense of well being but also general health. But I'm also aware that there are days when it feels like a real effort to get going.

This evening, having wrenched myself into action – and oh boy, it was an effort – I brushed skewered potatoes with olive oil, sprinkled them with salt and popped them into the oven to bake. Nothing to do after that for some time, so take a break. Watch the telly, have a fag ... whatever you want.

Later, I mixed some lemon and orange juice with a little olive oil and seasoning, before thinly slicing a Cox apple and halving some raddishes and popping them in this dressing. Then it occurred to me that this would be the ideal way to use up the rest of the weekend's aïoli, which was thinner than usual and had split a bit. Indeed, It created a crackingly tasty dressing.

Have another break.

The potatoes take over an hour because they're cooked at a low temperature for jackets – 160˚C fan oven. But that makes for a wonderfully fluffy inside and a lovely crispy skin.

When they were nearly done, it was a simple matter to haul out the griddle pan (I really don't use it enough), oil it and place it across two hobs.

Have another break.

Then out come two slices of tuna, to be dried with kitchen paper and then popped onto the heated griddle pan. If you want – and if you feel in fancy dan mode – you can move them around 90˚ after a minute, so that you get a criss-cross effect on the flesh. But they don't need more than two minutes on one side, and then just turn over and repeat.

Then it's a question of getting the potatoes out, cutting them and popping some good butter inside to melt everywhere and moisten the fluffy flesh, dishing out some of the salad, on top of a few endive leaves, and placing a tuna steak on each plate.

By nobody's stretch of the imagination can that be called difficult. And as always when I discipline myself to cook, in spite of tiredness, I feel the benefit on sitting down and starting to eat.

Dessert took care of itself. Nipping into Waitrose after work, I'd spotted the first English strawberries of the year, from Hampshire, which produced a real burst of excitement.

Now of course, they'll have been grown under glass (or plastic). But I held a box up and inhaled deeply. They weren't grotty, bland Elsanta, but gariguette, a French variety. And as it turned out, worth eating, with plenty of taste.

Winter really is over.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

What a grind

One of the reasons that I was so thrilled with my kMix back in December was the knowledge that it can be accessorised. Now we're not talking a Chanel clutch here – but the meat grinder might just be the culinary equivalent.

It arrived from Kenwood on Sunday, just as the final remains of the previous weekend's roast lamb shoulder were sitting in the fridge and wondering what would become of them.

The answer was obvious – a shepherd's pie. But not just any old shepherd's pie – the first I've made with left-over meat, as it would traditionally have been made.

In the event, I picked up a small amount of lean lamb from Waitrose, knowing that there wasn't quite enough for two of us at home. As I waited at the butcher's counter, I was amused to notice the mincer there, with a vast notice on it informing everyone that you could only use it if you'd been trained.

It required no training to get my home front one up, running and extruding meat. The grey meat and white fat that was left on the plate came together as delicate pink strings. The raw meat produced red ones.

An adjustment was needed to the cooking. The raw meat went into some lard with a diced onion and carrot and was cooked for 10 minutes, before the left-over meat was added and the cooking continued for a further 10 minutes.

A slug of left-over red wine and a little chicken stock joined these ingredients, together with some peas that had briefly been cooked in boiling water from frozen and then well drained (it makes no sense to add something frozen to a cooking dish – it'll reduce the temperature and add water), then everything was decanted into a buttered dish.

Potatoes were boiled and then mashed with cream and butter before being spread on top. It all went into the oven (pre-heated to 170˚C – for a fan oven) for 25 minutes.

And bloody good it was too – not perfect: I'd not added quite enough moisture, while the left-over mince had rather collapsed from those strings as soon as it hit the hot pan – an indication of how much fat was in them, I think. I'd probably also use an attachment on the grinder that leaves it in thicker strings next time. But the taste was good –and with a depth of flavour that was definitely different to that produced when making the dish with raw mince alone.

While I'd wanted this very grown-up gadget (thankfully, very easy to strip down, clean and put back together again) primarily for its mincing prowess, it does have another rather attractive ability – that of making sausages.

Chatting on the phone to my mother on Sunday evening, I mentioned this. She almost giggled and then asked, in something sounding remarkably like disbelief: "You're not going to try making your own sausages, are you?"

Of course I am. It won't be particularly difficult to find skins and basic recipes are easy to get hold of. What will be interesting will be the chance to experiment with flavours – and I'm also looking to make tomato sausages, like the ones I remember having when we visited my maternal grandmother and hadn't tasted for years until visiting a Glasgow butcher in January.

Not that I'm only interested in 'bangers': there's a whole world of charcuterie out there that I fancy getting a little better acquainted with. Beyond that, I've been tempted by the idea of curing for some time, and last night's edition of Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets gave that ambition another boost with a duck ham that almost looked too easy to be true.

A big, meaty adventure awaits.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

A messy day in London town

It's been a messy, messy day in the kitchen. After a busy week that saw my food desires hit the stage of a cup of Bovril and a cucumber sandwich for dinner on Thursday night, this has been the opportunity to get down and dirty on the culinary front.

It has been, indeed, an utterly gorgeous day, with the sun beaming down from early morning, bringing real warmth in its rays.

As blossom fluttered down like confetti, I sat in my usual halfway-through-the-shopping place, just off Broadway Market itself, and mused over the sheer pleasure that good weather can bring.

And then it was back and to work.

First things first: the new challenge of a sabayon, a mix of egg yolk, sugar, dessert wine and lemon juice, cooked incredibly gently in a bowl over simmering water so that you don't scramble the egg, and then with whipped cream folded in.

Trying to whisk the mix as it warmed through, with a thermometer on the side of the bowl, was number one messy moment, as blobs of the mix went everywhere when the electric whisk hit the aforementioned thermometer. After it's been whisked for around eight minutes like that, you continue whisking it over a bowl of iced water.

Then cold and very concentrated coffee is gently stirred through it, before it's decanted into a terrine (or ramekins) and popped in the freezer until tomorrow. And thus was made Raymond Blanc's iced coffee parfait. It might not be as light as it could be (this was my first effort at a sabayon, after all), but since cook's perogative allows wiping out bowls with a finger, I can say already that it certainly tastes good.

Messy episode No2 of the day came with the soup for lunch.

The weather has lightened so much that I wanted something a little lighter and fresher for lunch. So I decided to make a watercress soup.

Start with an onion, finely diced and softened in a little butter, in a lidded pan. After that, add a diced potato and some chicken stock, and cook for around 12-15 minutes until the potato is cooked through. Then add a bunch or two of watercress that you've trimmed and roughly chopped, and cook for a minute.

Let the soup cool a little and then blitz it.

I decided to use the mini processor and do it in stages, decanting each load of blitzed liquid into a clean pan. Unfortunately, this illustrated that the the Cusinart is not actually liquid proof – as soup spurted out from under the lid, over me, the work surface and the mixer itself.

Eventually, I got it all done and then popped back on the hob – although I was beginning to look a little like a particularly non-figurative piece of modern art by this time.

Season to taste with salt, pepper and a little grated nutmeg and give it a moment or two more. Then add a little cream and warm through. When serving, garnish with some chopped chives – which really do add to the finished soup.

Mess aside, it's a subtle taste and the fresh, flecked green is perfect for the changing season.

Fortunately, after quite some clearing up, that was the worst of the day's messiness over and done with.

A rhubarb syllabub served for dessert in the evening, preceeded by sautéd potatoes, pan-roasted cod and courgettes, done in a lidded pan with a small amount of butter – all of which was accompanied by homemade aïoli, as the handheld electric whisk put in a lot of overtime.

There is something about aïoli – it's like a taste of the sun. When I've made it, I could almost eat a bowl of it without anything else. No wonder it's such an iconic sauce in the south of France – it's food to life the soul.

Actually, not I come to think of it, there's a little of the watercress soup left over that I'll have for lunch tomorrow – perhaps a whirl of the aïoli will compliment that? We'll have to see.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Pasta la vista, baby

A long time ago – almost lost in the mists of time – The Other Half gave me a Christmas present of one of those boxed, culinary gifts that adorn the shelves of supermarkets in the festive season.

In this case, it was two small pasta bowls – they’re more like soup bowls, to be honest – with ‘pasta’ written on the side in case you couldn’t work out what to use them for. They came with a couple of packets of spices/herbs and a slender volume of 10 recipes from Gordon Ramsey.

The message was clear: ‘stop boiling pasta to death after we get home from work in an evening when we’re both getting whatever we fancy to eat’. I didn’t attempt to feed The Other Half said ultra-soft pasta, but he hated the smell of it.

The bowls went in one cupboard, the spices another and the book went on a shelf somewhere.

Fast forward a few years, by which time I had started to get interested in food and started to try to learn to cook.

I picked up the little book, found it looked terrifyingly complicated, and put it down again.

A couple more years passed. But this time, when I picked the book up again, it didn’t seem anywhere near as intimidating and I set about trying one of the recipes. It was a velouté sauce to be served with scallops or salmon, and pasta.

This involved a reduction of wine and stock, and things that not long before, I’d have dismissed as beyond me. It was the first time I started to comprehend just what a reduction really achieves. It’s finished with cream to give a lovely, smooth texture.

The velouté (which I did with salmon) was a success. I tried several others over the coming months, including one with bacon lardons, rosemary, asparagus and cannellini beans (this was a breakthrough in terms of persuading The Other Half to eat any pulses) and one involving very lightly curried shallots, julienned carrot and wilted spinach.

And so it was that, last night, I returned to the book for an easy supper.

Did you spot that? Something that was once so scary is now an ‘easy’ supper. It was the velouté, with chopped mushrooms. Lovely.

Looking at the recipe again last night, it struck me just how much my perceptions got in the way of my doing things. The recipe is no simpler now than it ever was, but it requires no fancy skills or equipment. And the result is lovely.

Am I the only one who has become convinced, for whatever reason, that food is just too difficult? I’m glad that I managed to get past that stage, but I very much doubt that I was remotely alone.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The perfect, easy roast for a Sunday

If concrete proof were still needed to show that it really is spring, then it came this morning from two quite different sources – and both of them with an irritant factor.

First, it was apparently mild enough that the residents of a flat over the road felt that they could open their door and share their music with half the rest of the street.

I don’t know how their neighbours cope – I’ve suggested to one who I know that they should get onto the council quickly, but an attitude seems to exist that there’s no point. Well there certainly isn’t if you don’t make even the smallest effort.

The second thing was the rain: a steady drizzle on a grey day, but one that still felt different to winter’s precipitation.

So what food could be better for such a Sunday than a roast? And I’ve finally managed to find a recipe for a really long-slow one – in this case, a shoulder of lamb, as described by Raymond Blanc in Kitchen Secrets.

Lamb may well be my favourite meat, and shoulder is a cut I like and have been roasting quite happily for some time, usually with olive oil, a couple of sprigs of rosemary and slivers of garlic slipped into the flesh, cooked for approximately an hour and a half, with par-boiled small potatoes added 15 minutes from time, together with halved artichoke hearts and a tin of cannellini beans.

But as I’ve tried more of Blanc’s recipes, it’s clear that little tweaks can really make a difference to a dish, even when you didn’t think there was room for much improvement.

With that in mind, the meat sat on a tray for an hour, having been lightly scored over the skin and a mix of finely chopped sage leaves (just three), rosemary leaves, salt, pepper and olive oil having then been rubbed in.

Otto was confused and wanted to know why pungent green stuff has been put on glorious smelling meat. It has the added advantage of keeping her nose at a distance as the meat comes properly to room temperature and absorbs the flavours of the rub.

The next stage involved lamb bones (my butcher on the market yesterday gave me a lovely bag of them), browned in oil on the hob in a roasting tin for around seven to 10 minutes, with another three minutes after that as a bulb of garlic, halved horizontally through the middle, joined them.

Then you balance the shoulder on top and give it 20 minutes at 230˚C (fan oven temperature). Pull it out, skim the fat and turn the oven down to 150˚C.

In the meantime, some white wine goes into a pan and is boiled for just 30 seconds. With a few sprigs of thyme and some hot water, this is added to the roasting tin, which is covered loosely with foil.

Then it’s roasted for however long the size of meat needs, and basted every 30 minutes or so. The bones act as a rack to keep the meat off the surface of the roasting tin, but they also help to flavour the liquid, leaving you with a lovely jus at the end.

By the time the meat was half way through its initial roast, the smell in the flat was simply wonderful. The aroma of cooking really makes a home. Together with cats, I’ve been reminded by Otto, who is sitting on the desk, paying exceptionally careful attention to the words appearing on screen.

My sous chef and my editor, it appears.

Once it’s underway, it makes for a very easy dinner.

On the side, I took thickly sliced carrot and whole shallots and sautéed them briefly in a little duck fat before lidding the pan and leaving it for around 40 minutes. About 10 minutes from time, as the meat was resting, small potatoes were added (I cheated – they were from a tin, drained and dried).

A fat separator comes in really handy at moments like this, and made light work of stripping most of the fat out of the jus, which was then brought back to a good heat and checked for seasoning before being decanted into a jug (memo to self: a Pyrex measuring jug is not a sauce or gravy boat and doesn’t look right on the table).

All in all, though, very tasty. The lamb was cooked through perfectly; moist and tasty, and the jus made a really nice compliment – a little bitter, but that works well against the sweetness of the meat.

It was a lovely, deep brown colour too, which reminded me of my mother’s gravy making, which usually involved adding browning from a bottle to the fat in the roasting tin, before flour was stirred in. That was another of my little chores in the kitchen.

So, it most certainly passed the taste test – and for a Sunday roast, was also a delightfully easy prep and cook. There really is nothing like a roast at this time of year; a nice peak to the weekend's food and perhaps the ultimate British social dish.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Spring sprung

Alongside the Regent’s Canal, life is emerging from the cocoon of winter. Pussy willow is there, along with delicate white blossom and sappy little shoots. A barely visible pale green veneer seems to coat everything.

You’d scarcely think this was the same stretch of water where police divers were at work yesterday, searching for a knife after a nearby street stabbing the night before brought the air ambulance into the park right behind our flat.

Daffs and narcissi are waving in the March winds in the park and even the clematis in our tiny garden are almost hold-your-breath near to emerging in all their delicate pink glory.

This morning was so sunny that we sat outside with coffee, the cats having nagged us madly to get up and, more to the point, open the door. They might have all had their bits out, but the sap seems to be rising in them too.

Even in the worst weather, Broadway Market is always one of my pleasures of the week. But today, with the sun having pushed back its duvet, stretched its arms and actually decided to provide some warmth, it was a bigger joy than usual.

There was a four-piece musical combo playing a range of tunes, including an arrangement of the theme from Fawlty Towers that morphed into the theme from Last of the Summer Wine and then a sort of march that I cannot name, but remember because of nonsense lyrics that can be sung to it:

‘Oh beware of your web-footed friend,
For a duck may be somebody’s mother,
Who lives on the edge of the swamp,
Where the weather’s cold and damp.
And if you think that this is the end,
Well it is, but to prove that I’m a liar,
I’ll sing it all over again,
Only this time a little bit higher.’

I remember singing it on coach trips out from the Methodist Guild Guesthouse in Whitby the year my father acted as ‘host’-clergyman on duty for a fortnight. Oddly, given that I was even more surrounded than normal by church folk (but not from his own congregations), it was a liberating holiday where I found enough space to let off steam in my own peculiar sort of way.

I bought a dog collar – the canine type, not like the one my father wore – that was attached to a rigid lead, and caused great amusement by taking my invisible dog for a walk along the prom, getting tugged along behind it, being embarrassed when it cocked its leg against a passing stranger …

But enough of this quite random remembering: back to the here and now.

The Other Half is in Yorkshire for this evening’s match between Castleford Tigers and the Catalans Dragons: the same Dragons to whom we owe our introduction to France and, particularly, to Roussillon and the delights of French Catalonia. Who should I support?

We’re already planning this year’s trip – and given that my latest French OU course mark was 90%, I might actually be able to speak and understand more this time around, although I’ve improved out of all recognition in the last few years, which wasn’t too difficult, given my appalling record on languages at school.

But more of that another time. What of today, in very un-French Hackney?

Yesterday’s revival of health (and appetite) has remained. Boy, a good night’s sleep makes such a difference to life.

I made sandwiches for TOH and sent him on his way. Since then, I’ve made my first effort at celeriac remoulade. First, a simple mayonnaise, whisking together the yolk of an egg with a very little lemon juice, half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and then drizzled olive oil. I finished with a tiny amount of just-boiled water (barely a teaspoon), which seems to help secure the emulsion.

Then finely chop some cornichons and capers and pop them in with the mayo.

And so to the celeriac itself. Having bought myself a mandolin earlier this year, I had an initial burst of using it and then it hasn’t been out of the box for some weeks.

Yesterday, it came out to slice wafer-thin pieces of fennel and red onion for a salad (with endive, goat’s cheese, toasted walnuts and a dressing of orange juice, honey, olive oil and seasoning – I said I was feeling better), and then for the potatoes and turnip in a gratin, à la Raymond Blanc, that I did last night to go with some sausages.

As a slight aside, I’ve always done a dauphinoise with potatoes that have been soaked in water after slicing, and then dried. But reading Nigel Slater the other week, he says it’s not necessary. Blanc concurs – but explains why. Apparently, you want to keep the starch, because that’s what helps ‘glue’ the potatoes together to make a ‘cake’. Less work, then – and it works beautifully.

Today, I’d already used the mandolin for more red onion for The Other Half’s sandwiches, so there it was, black and shining metal, all ready and waiting for a really macho cutting job.

Yesterday, I’d decided to try using it without the guard. Actually, it’s a lot easier, although losing chunks from two fingernails was a salutary warning of the bite it has.

But then it was a question of just which two blades you need to put in place to get the julienned result. Out of a box of seven, I tried four before I got something slightly bigger than finely grated. I did discover how to make crinkly crisps, though.

Since my celeriac was so fine, I didn’t blanch it, but popped it straight into the mayo mix before it could discolour. Job’s a good un.

And what will the remoulade accompany? A Dover sole, that was sat, all on its own on Vicki’s stall, calling out to me. It’ll be brushed with melted butter and grilled – absolutely nothing else. Fast food can be good food too.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Right off me food

If being off your food is a pretty reliable indicator of someone’s general state of health, then how bad a sign is that in a foodie?

It’s not likely that you’re going to be thinking of homemade truffles when you’re full of the snuffles.

This is Friday and I’m sitting at home with the remains of a stinking cold – the third of the winter, for goodness sake – and which has been at its worst under cover of dark, keeping me awake with a hacking cough for several nights.

I have had no appetite either for eating or considering food.

But finally, like a long overdue spring, the first signs of revival are appearing.

And so I’m going to try to concentrate my mind on the very limited culinary highlights from the beginning of the week – before a can of Heinz macaroni cheese was all I fancied or all I could be arsed to prepare.

Last Sunday involved the complexity of organising an evening meal to be ready when The Other Half arrived back from a Rugby League match up north.

I opted for a first effort at a poule au pot, which I could allow to simmer away merrily until TOH had arrived home.

This is one of those classic French peasant dishes – and like so much peasant cuisine, there as many ways to make it as there are people who’ve made it.

I knew of one recipe in a book on the shelf, and checked that and several others before simply combining them all in my head and cooking without a book.

So the chicken – a small, organic one – was browned in some butter in a large pot and then removed. Chopped carrots, celery and onion followed to soften and brown a tad.

Then the bird went back in, with bouquet garni, the vegetables, a couple of glasses of white wine and about the same of water. I stuck the lid on and left it. It needs around 40 minutes to an hour, so with that in mind, add some peeled, small potatoes when you’re about 30 minutes from the end (potatoes always take longer to cook in stock/wine than in plain, boiling water).

When it’s cooked and you’re almost ready to serve, take out the bird and leave to rest in a warm place before carving, and whisk some beurre manié (half plain flour, half softened butter, blended) into the liquid, bit by bit, to thicken. Check the seasoning.

The Other Half was impressed: it’s soothing, gentle food, and very pleasant for all that. And very easy.

There was plenty left, but my efforts a couple of days later (when the cold had fully descended) to add rice and a tin of cannellini beans to that while it re-heated didn’t really work.

The only other things that are worth mentioning in a week that, otherwise, has been a culinary desert, are Raymond Blanc’s lamb’s liver and Nigel Slater’s sausages.

For the former, take some floury potatoes and peel and dice them. Blanch for 30 seconds, then drain and dry thoroughly.

Chop some flat leaf parsley, a little shallot and garlic, and mix together for a persillade.

Sauté the potatoes in a little oil for around four to fives minutes. Then sauté the sliced liver in a little butter for 30 seconds to a minute on each side.

Serve dressed with the persillade. This is lovely – and again, so easy and indeed, so cheap.

Slater’s take on bangers and mash involves mixing chopped parsley with mash – after cooking the sausages long and slow in a lidded pan, on a low heat and with just the minimum of added fat to stop them sticking.

It works very well – sausages are a sort of bugbear of mine: I seem to get them right sometimes and then wrong at others, without always feeling clear about what went right or wrong. This time, I took the lid off the pan late on, turned up the heat and gave them just a bit more colour. They were fine.

Instead of a potato mash, I did swede and carrot – adding parsley at the end – and served everything with slow-cooked, sliced red onions. By that time, you’ve got three portions of your five a day – which can’t be bad!

And that, I’m afraid, has been pretty much it for an entire culinary week. Things, as someone once sang, can only get better.

And if they don't, I'll take out a super injunction against anyone saying I've ever claimed to be at least a half-way reasonable cook (sometimes)!

Monday, 7 March 2011

A toast to living

Nigel Slater’s Toast had only been on the edge of my awareness – until Christmas just past when the BBC screened a film adaptation of it.

I turned over after a short while – not because it wasn’t any good, because it was, but because I wanted to read the book before seeing the dramatisation.

Because it had been trailed, when my mother had asked me for present suggestion, I’d mentioned it. And it was duly among my gifts, although my mother noted, in a slightly odd way: “It’s looks a bit ... strange”.

Ah, Mother. That’ll be because you probably noticed, on the back cover if nowhere else, the phrase ‘sexual awakening’. I do hope she didn’t leaf too thoroughly through the pages and spot the references to masturbation.

Toast is Slater’s volume of autobiography – he says he’ll never pen another – and it covers his life from childhood to early adulthood.

The book is centred on the foods of his childhood and youth, but not only does Slater evoke these wonderfully, his ability to recollect events from his life in terms of these foods is almost Proustian.

There are times when the detail of his recollection can prompt your own – certainly if you grew up in essentially the same era and also within the same sort of class group.

I’d forgotten that helping to polish the brasses was a regular chore – and one that I enjoyed: it always left you with a sense of gleaming achievement.

I’d forgotten parental snobbishness about certain foods (although not about TV). I’d forgotten arctic rolls.

Such things sprung back to life in my mind as I read, in full, technicolour clarity.

It’s not, on the surface of it, a particularly heart-warming story. Slater’s adored mother died when he was nine and his father was something of a bully.

When his father then married the cleaner, it created a climate of competition between new wife and son for his affection. And the weapon for both of them in that was food.

Whereas his mother struggled with cooking and frequently turned to toast to replace disasters, Slater’s step-mother was far happier and more skilled in the kitchen.

What follows is like a darkly hilarious reality TV show – 'extreme cooking', with the prize being one man's affections.

The author never makes the error of trying to present himself as a delightful child who was easy to deal with – this is far more natural and real.

But although all of this should make the book quite depressing, it’s far from that, because even if most of the food that Slater describes is about as far removed from haute cuisine as possible, what comes through clearly is the pleasure of eating and cooking.

And since the author is very much of the opinion that pleasure is what links food and sex, then this tale of growing up and discovery and yearning has to include sex too, which it does, very funnily, on occasion. And very, very open and honest he is too.

A really excellent book from a writer who has a wonderful ability to capture and convey time and place and the sensuality of one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Raymond Blanc changed my life

When I ordered A Taste of My Life by Raymond Blanc, I did so in the expectation of it being an autobiography.

It was in my bag when I traveled to Glasgow in late January for work and, on my first night there, I read the opening pages before heading to a restaurant for dinner.

As I posted after that, one of the first things that had struck me was Blanc’s comments on taste – not ‘taste’ as in ‘I have loads and you have none’, but learning to taste.

Or, as he puts it in terms of the UK, “re-connecting with food, re-estsablishing the food culture that for many years has been largely forgotten in Great Britain, thanks in part to intensive farming and supermarkets”.

Once seated in the restaurant, I started with salmon, oak smoked with whisky and juniper.

Not caring what anyone else thought I looked like, I found myself closing my eyes and being able to taste the different elements involved (well, at least some of them). The whisky comes through late – very gentle, very subtle – and gives the dish ‘length’: in other words, it’s a taste experience that lasts beyond an initial sensation.

I was stunned. Continuing to practice, it seriously heightened my experience at Michael Caines @ Abode just over a week ago: I could understand at least some of the complexity and balance of the food I was eating. But adding to understanding is not simply a sort of academic thing – it really adds to the pleasure.

Being quite busy at present, it took a while to get through the rest of the book.

It’s hardly ‘just’ autobiography, though. There is food science, food philosophy and a collection of recipes.

The autobiographical aspects of the book are a delight to read. Blanc wonderfully evokes his childhood in France, where his mother’s cooking and the seasonality of food had such a profound influence on him.

There are also substantial sections detailing some very technical aspects of food, but he explains them in such a way that, not only are they interesting, you start to better understand how to cook, because you better understand how and why some things work and others do not.

‘Why don’t you tear a bay leaf’, is one question that he says he is asked. He doesn’t simply tell you that it would make a dish bitter, but suggests an experiment. Get two small pans with equal amounts of water and a single bay leaf in each – one torn, one not – and slowly heat them.

Taste each after five minutes. Taste again after 10. I haven’t done it (yet), but apparently it’s clear that the torn leaf creates bitterness.

Similarly, his advice on cooking with wine – apart from the very reassuring news that you shouldn’t spend any more than £4-5 on a bottle that you intend to cook with – is equally fascinating.

We use wine to add acidity (I’d never thought of it that way), but Blanc himself usually boils a little of the alcohol off before adding the wine to a dish – just to cut that acid a bit. More than that, he tastes the boiling wine to check he’s reached exactly the right level of acidity for the dish he’s making.

And yes, I have subsequently tried this, tasting every 10 seconds as the wine bubbles away, and the difference over the course of just a few seconds is remarkable.

Indeed, even the mere idea of tasting regularly while cooking had never really hit me. It’s a huge help when seasoning and cuts the cuts the guess work out, for starters.

I’ve cooked from a number of the recipes in the book already. Having made French onion soup more than a few times over the last 10 years, I decided to try that a few weekends ago – just to see if his version produced a noticeably better dish. It had me listing to the onion cook gently in butter to start with, tasting the wine (as mentioned above) and tasting the soup itself as it cooked, starting to comprehend how a dish changes and develops.

For goodness sake – I’m listening to food?! But that is a wonderful way to work out, for instance, how hot butter needs to be to sear meat.

His recipe for bread produced the best I’ve made – although having a mixer helps.

All these recipes have “chef’s notes” at the end, which provide more detail of why he does certain things – again, the increased understanding really helps make things stick in your mind.

It's tempting to think of Blanc, in some ways, as the father of molecular gastronomy in the UK – he’s meticulous and fascinated with the scientific aspects of cooking. But he’s also put off by what he sees as the extremes of that form of cuisine, which he fears is ultimately about something other than wonderful-tasting food.

He’s fascinating too on fusion – and on countless other things.

And all this is from someone who is entirely self-taught – but who has had a massive influence on cooking and food in this country.

One book and I’m eating differently and cooking differently. I cannot say it enough – this really is a fabulous volume.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

A taste of Manchester

Last weekend (and the two days before) was a Manchester-based smorgasbord, which included a number of elements – some sweeter tasting than others.

There was equal pay in Bury, where the goings on brought to mind Alan Bleasdale's GBH, and attempts by Bolton council to close a mini zoo where parents and grandparents have been taking their children since the 1930s (and it had been open as a menagerie since Victorian times), which have now been put on hold, thanks to a super campaign by the local community (including primary schools and playgroups) and UNISON.

Then there was the football, which itself included an assortment of highs and lows, from a certain young Italian who is, on the one hand, fabulously talented, but on the other, prone to behaving like a spoilt brat at times, to the wonderful atmosphere created by 5,000 Greeks, who also turned out to be bearing gifts.

But in between all this, there was some eating to be done.

On Thursday, finding that the Pizza Express at Piccadilly Gardens had an early evening queue outside, and seeing as those 5,000 fans of Aris FC were having a party in the gardens themselves, prior to being marched to Eastlands for the evening's match by the local constabulary, I decided to get ahead of them – and concentrate on getting to the stadium.

I was hungry by this time, but settled for pie (cheese and onion) and chips. It was no better than I expected – but no worse. It was stadium fodder that did what it needed to and kept the wolf from the door.

After a game that was thoroughly enjoyable, and included some passages of exquisite attacking play from City (even with David Silva missing through injury), I was lucky enough to get one of the first buses back into the city centre – and find a table for one in the aforementioned restaurant, which has become a regular venue for a meal when I'm in town.

Equally ritualistically, I ordered a thin crust with pepperoni and jalapeno chilis, with a beer on the side to quench the fire, followed by a couple of scoops of coffee gelato. All quite enjoyable – and it got the old endorphins flowing pleasantly.

Friday saw a trip to Bury, which was preceded by an early lunch – a ploughmans in Harvey Nicks, that was not only very good, but also surprisingly good value too, when you consider the cost of ready-made sandwiches etc.

It included really lovely pork pie, thin, smoked ham, and two cheeses – although I'd have personally preferred a 'tastier' Lancashire than that available.

But Friday night was my big meal out. I'd booked a table for one at Michael Caines @ Abode.

Once there, the maitre d' suggested that, since I can't eat big portions, perhaps I should try the grazing menu: small portions that would allow me try more number of dishes than otherwise.

The executive chef is Mark Rossi, but I deliberately opted for three of Caines's own signature dishes. Then, after my order had been taken, I had the attentions of the sommelier, who made some fascinating suggestions for each dish.

So, to start: Scottish organic salmon, with salmon jelly, cucumber, sevruga caviar, honey soy, wasabi and a Greek yogurt vingarette.

The fish was not thin slices, but incredibly soft pieces from a fillet. I don’t know wasabi as a flavour to pick out, but the entire dish was beautifully balanced, with sweet, sour and bitter flavours – and the cucumber ribbons were a revelation. Fresh and clean, it was a delight.

To follow, came roast duck liver, orange braised chicory, caramelised walnuts and marinated raisins in an anise-spiced sauce.

So the sweetness of the liver, the tartness of the sauce and the bitterness of the chicory – again, sublime balance. And the recommended wine – going entirely against the red-with-red-meat mantra – was a sweet Riesling, which worked wonderfully.

Now being me, if these were ‘regular’ portions, I’d have been stuffed by this stage.

But there was plenty of room for some Lake District saddle of venison, served with smoked bacon, chestnut purée, roast root vegetables and a red and blackcurrant wine sauce.

When you look at that description, you can see straight away the balance of flavours here too. And, as with the previous dishes, a wonderful mix of textures aswell.

For dessert, I opted for another Caines signature dish – a caramel and cardamom parfait with milk chocolate mousse, nougatine and a cardamom foam.

The parfait was … well, it made me think of an incredibly grown-up version of a butterscotch Angel Delight. And utterly gorgeous.

And I was even more delighted on realising that there was a Banyuls available as a dessert wine – a welcome reminder of the warmth of the Mediterranean.

This was a sumptuous meal, with balance as the key.

Service was excellent and the atmosphere was very pleasant (although the jerk at the table next to mine, who was playing possessiveness games with the woman with him, managed to maintain a remarkably consistent level of sheer irritatingness).

It was back down to culinary earth on Saturday.

After chilly, drizzly Bolton (thank goodness the rain cleared before we went outside to do the photography!), I found Tina’s Market Café in the covered market in the town.

This was ‘the full English’ at its most basic – even down to the slightly chipped and stained white mug that my tea came in – but boy, did it hit the spot.

That evening, I resorted to pizza again – with red onion, goat’s cheese, pine nuts, capers, black olives and sultanas. There’s nowt wrong with decent pizza. And then a very odd tiramisu, which seemed to be made of sponge cake, rather than sponge fingers.

Sunday morning saw me turned away from two Weatherspoons on Piccadilly, for the ‘crime’ of wearing football colours on a match day in a football-mad town. I found consolation in the unexpected peace and quiet of Bella Italia, which actually serves an Italianised version of an English fry up.

The last real food experience of the trip came in the Arndale. It’s decades since I wandered around there: I don’t really ‘do’ shopping malls, but had time on my hands.

It has never struck me before how many shops play loud music: loud, fast music, at that. Even the Disney shop plays fast music – albeit a bit less rock ‘n’ roll than the clothes shops, for instance. Presumably it gets the old adrenalin going and the punters are, therefore, more likely to splash their cash (or credit).

Waterstones, with very soft New Agey background music, was a respite. And so, later, was Druckers, a ‘Vienna patisserie’. After gazing at the cakes, salivating, for some time, I opted for a mint chocolate mousse. It was pretty decent – although I was a tad surprised that it was served in a plastic sleeve, even though I was eating in. Would that have happened in, say, Vienna?

That aside, though, it wasn’t a bad old few days for the food. But Michael Caines @ Abode was, without a shadow of a doubt, a superb culinary experience on every level.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The meaty advice that’s tough to chew

We’ve been inundated with information about a healthy diet for some years, but the very latest advice seems a little more difficult to swallow.

The BBC has reported that the Scientific Advisory Commission on Nutrition, which advises the government, has issued new guidelines on red meat.

According to Auntie, “red meat lovers have been warned to cut down their intake.” And it goes on to post what’s obviously The Really Big Question: “Just how much red and processed meat should we consume?”

It seems that the advice is based on the premise that substantial numbers of people eat at least one portion of red meat every single day. Since you should apparently only consume 500g of such meat a week, that works out at 70g a day (for adults).

The real fun starts with the illustrations of what the guidelines mean in terms of what’s on your plate.

Given the 70g figure, the article lists six examples of foods, with an estimated amount of red meat – and a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to whether it falls in the 70g bracket or not.

The six are:

  • cooked breakfast (“assumes two standard sausages and two thin rashers of bacon”) – 130g – No;

  • spaghetti Bolognese (“standard portion of minced beef” – whatever a “standard portion” is) – 140g – No;

  • 5oz rump steak – 102g – No;

  • doner kebab (“typically comprising several slices of processed marinated lamb”) – 130g – No;

  • Big Mac (“contains two thin burgers”) – 70g ¬– Yes;

  • Sunday roast (“assumes three slices of beef, lamb or pork”) – 90g – No.

The NHS website itself helpfully provides other examples:

  • a quarter pounder beefburger – 78g – (to copy the style of the BBC article, ‘No’);

  • a grilled 8oz beef steak – 163g – (so another ‘No’);

  • Peperami – 25g – (that’ll be a ‘Yes’).

Later, it says that the advice has been issued by the Department of Health and is “based on a report called Iron and Health, by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), published in February 2011”.

SACN is apparently “a committee of independent nutrition experts who advise the government on diet and nutrition.”

They’re interesting figures that the government is providing. Not because they’re needlessly complicated and will simply confuse people. But interesting for an entirely different reason.

Between the BBC article and the NHS website, nine specific examples are given of red meat meals. Only two are apparently ‘safe’ to eat on a daily basis.

Those two also happen to be the only two examples given of branded foods. In this case, a McDonald’s Big Mac (the other beefburger cited is not given as a branded example) and Peperami (a Unilever brand).

I hate to be a suspicious sod, but one’s mind cannot help but drift back to last November, to a story about how the likes of McDonald’s and Unilever were to be put “at the heart of writing government policy on obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease”.

This is not to suggest that the core of the advice is not reasonable. We know that ‘the Mediterranean diet’ is considered a very healthy one, and that it includes less meat in general than might be considered usual in the UK – and quite a lot less red meat than we consume. Not none – but less.

What seems so blatant here, to a suspicious mind, is that the only two examples presented as within the ‘safe’ limits, if you wish to keep consuming red meat every day, are the only branded items – and they are produced by companies that the government has invited to help create policy on health.

The complicated way in which the advice is written could even be seen as a sort of subliminal advert for Big Macs and Peperami.

Now of course, this could simply be my suspicious mind and it might simply be a coincidence. After all, if it says it’s an “independent” body then so it must be.