Thursday, 30 December 2010

Happy memories of 2010

As we see out 2010 and look forward to 2011, I'm indulging myself with one of my favourite images of the year. This is a photo of one of France's naughtiest delicacies and, for me, the merest thought of it conjures up holidays. I'm a huge fan of butter and when it's seasoned with crunchy sea salt, it becomes a treat to cherish. I have to confess, I'm particularly partial to it spread on baguettes, along with Bonne Maman strawberry jam, although it melts deliciously over simply cooked vegetables and is ideal to use for frying.

Looking at this picture in the depths of winter, I can't help but find the summery packaging uplifting and my mouth is watering at the sight of the butter. Happy memories indeed.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Red cabbage with orange and spice

Red cabbage is one of winter's highlights. This beautiful vegetable costs very little and goes an incredibly long way – so much so that I end up freezing most of it. We love it with any type of meat and it is particularly good with game. This version includes orange and is fabulous with duck and I'm really looking forward to having it with our Christmas dinner, especially the gammon. Juniper would be another nice addition and would be particularly good with pork. It's also seriously wine-friendly (notably red Burgundy).

This recipe is based on one from a favourite cookery book, Leith's Cookery Bible (although orange isn't included in the original).

1 small red cabbage
1 onion, sliced (red onion also works well)
30g butter
2 apples, peeled and sliced
1 large orange, zest removed in large slices with a small paring knife
juice from the orange
2 teaspoons soft brown sugar
2 teaspoons wine vinegar or cider vinegar
a pinch of ground cloves
salt and freshly ground black pepper

The book says this serves six but, as I like to use a larger cabbage and ramp up the other ingredients, it can serve up to 10.

Start off by shredding the cabbage, discarding any hard stalks. Rinse well.

In a large heavy pan (a preserving pan is ideal), melt the butter and fry the onion until soft. Add the drained, but still wet cabbage, the apples, sugar, vinegar, cloves, orange juice and slices of zest; season with salt and pepper. Mix well.

Cover with a lid and allow to cook on a low heat for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally, until soft and reduced in bulk. During cooking, if the cabbage starts drying out, add more water. Check seasoning before serving – it may need more salt, pepper or sugar.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Christmas pudding soufflés

This recipe is based on one by Richard Corrigan that appeared in Waitrose Food Illustrated (as was) and I think it must have been the November 2009 issue. I cooked these soufflés on New Year’s Eve last year and they went down extremely well. The recipe is sufficiently festive, but with a grown-up dinner party feel – a really useful dessert for this time of year (and quite manageable as it can be prepared in two stages). I made them again recently to use up the final chunk of last year's Christmas pud that had been lurking in the freezer. Again, the soufflés were fabulous.

9 eggs, separated
65g caster sugar
250ml whole milk
1 vanilla pod, split
15g plain flour
10g cornflour
150g Christmas pudding, crumbled
15g butter, softened, to line moulds
1 tablespoon icing sugar, to dust

Serves 8

For the soufflé base, in a large bowl whisk together three egg yolks and 50g caster sugar until thick and creamy.

Meanwhile, heat the milk and vanilla pod together in a pan until boiling. Whisk all the flour into the egg-and-sugar mixture before adding the milk, still whisking as you pour. Remove the vanilla pod. Pour this mixture into a large saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until thickened. Stir in the crumbled Christmas pudding and leave to cool – this can be done the day before if you refrigerate the mixture until you are ready to cook the dish.

To make the soufflés, preheat the oven to 240°C/gas 8. Brush eight 8cm ramekins lightly with butter. Chill for five minutes. Brush with more butter, then dust evenly with the remaining 15g caster sugar.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites to form soft peaks. Beat half the whisked egg white into half the soufflé base, then fold in the remainder of both mixtures. Spoon into the ramekins, smooth over the tops with a knife and cook for seven to eight minutes, until risen.

Dust with icing sugar (although recently, when these pictures were taken, I didn't bother).

The original recipe points out that at Corrigan’s restaurant, the soufflés are served with an Irish whiskey-flavoured ice cream. This prompted me to serve them with generous glasses of Baileys – absolutely gorgeous! You could also serve them with some good quality malt whisky with a splash of water (as suggested by Waitrose Food Illustrated). You can see from the picture below that I was tempted to try some treackly Pedro Ximenez with them, but ended up sticking with the Baileys.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Christmas treats

Need some last-minute Christmas gift ideas for food and drink lovers? Here is a selection of personal favourites.

Paul A Young chocolates
Whether it’s just a bar or a whole box of chocs from this gorgeous shop in Islington, your chocoholic friends or relatives will be delighted. The infectiously enthusiastic Mr Young constantly experiments with ingredients (sweet and savoury) and how they combine with different types of chocolate. The results are spectacular. As unusual as some of the chocolates may be, there is something for every taste. Personal favourites are the salted caramel truffle and his little bars in different flavours and types of chocolate. For serious chocolate lovers, you might want to consider treating them to a chocolate tasting.

Speciality sea salt
Maldon Salt is made up of the most beautiful little pyramid shaped crystal flakes and is perfect for sprinkling. This salt comes from the Essex coast and was prized by the Romans. Lovers of the West Country might be interested in Cornish Sea Salt that comes from the Lizard peninsular and has a really intense taste of the sea and more granular texture. I’ve also been a great fan of French fleur de sel, but a particularly favourite is smoked salt. Halen Môn from Anglesey in Wales is excellent with eggs, fish and poultry and the Maldon Salt people now offer a smoked version.

Since ancient times saffron, from the stigmas of the crocus flower, has been one of the world’s greatest luxuries and weight for weight more valuable than gold. Thankfully, a little goes a long way. Just a few strands of saffron add colour as well as delicious, aromatic flavour to sweet and savoury dishes. Even something as mundane as scrambled eggs can be transformed to five star luxury with a sprinkling of this precious spice.

Maple syrup
This is one the whole family can enjoy. I love honey, but it tastes a bit two dimensional alongside the complex butterscotch and caramel flavours of maple syrup. It’s such a treat and so versatile, and nothing beats pouring it over breakfast pancakes or yoghurt and fruit. Locally, Waitrose and health food shops are good hunting grounds. 

London smoked salmon from Forman and Field
This Billingsgate based family company developed the original ‘London Cure’ for smoking salmon. Two types of smoked salmon are available: a regular smoked salmon and a special wild smoked salmon and the prices differ dramatically due to the rarity of wild salmon. Many other delicacies are available, as are top-notch hampers and the company also offers gift vouchers. They also have a restaurant on their premises in New Billingsgate.

The Wine Society Lifetime Membership
The Wine Society, established in 1874, is run as a partnership, with each member owning shares. In order to be a customer you need to join and the £40 life membership fee entitles you to access a superb range of wine at extremely competitive prices. Members receive a regular newsletter and details of the Society’s frequent events. There is an enormous temperature controlled wine storage facility at their base in Stevenage if you want to lay down wines and don’t have the space at home. Furthermore, there is an outlet in northern France where cases of wine can be bought duty free.

Sample wines at The Sampler
This wine merchant is unusual as visitors to the shop can pay to taste small samples of 80 wines at any given time. They use special wine storage equipment that allows open bottles to be enjoyed over an extended period. Prices for samples start at 30p for fino sherry, rising pretty much as high as you like for rare, classic wines from great vintages and the selection changes every fortnight. To experience these wines you use a Sampler Card, credited to at least £10, and help yourself to wines that take your fancy. The Sampler also organises themed tastings; recent examples include wine and chocolate (£25) and Bordeaux 1996 (£75). Sampler Cards can be used as gift vouchers, as well as for sampling. There is now a branch in South Kensington as well as the original branch in Upper Street, Islington.

Lunch at Le Gavroche
You might have seen Michel Roux Junior on television (recently on MasterChef: The Professionals) and this is his restaurant – one of London’s finest. This is classic French, but with a light, contemporary touch. Dining here is the culinary equivalent to a ride in a Bentley – sleek, smooth and impeccably luxurious, yet if you can get down to Mayfair for their set lunch, for £48 you can enjoy three courses with half a bottle of wine, mineral water and coffee. Note: you need to book a few weeks in advance.

The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson
From aardvark to zuppa inglese, this makes for extremely enjoyable, informative reading, either looking up specific entries or randomly dipping into. It is beautifully written, witty and highly authoritative. Alan Davidson’s books on seafood are also well worth seeking out as, like this book, they are absolutely classic reference works.
£40 Oxford Companions

The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson
Wine is all about geography and climate, so maps are central to understanding this complex subject. This comprehensive book is updated every few years and, along with the Oxford Companion to Wine (see below), is considered the benchmark work on the subject. It is a beautiful book and would appeal to anyone who loves travelling, eating and drinking.
£40 Mitchell Beazley

Oxford Companion to Wine
This encyclopedia, like the World Atlas of Wine, is regularly kept up to date and could not be more highly regarded. It is compiled by Jancis Robinson (co-author of the Atlas) who draws on her own considerable expertise and from a broad international team of specialists. Used together, these two books will comprehensively cover this enormous subject.
£40 Oxford Companions

How to Drink by Victoria Moore
For a more practical treatment of the subject of what we drink – wines, beers and spirits, cocktails, soft drinks, hot drinks, smoothies, juices – this excellent book by the Guardian’s wine columnist encourages you to get the most out of every sip or gulp. It’s an entertaining and informative read and should inspire you, whatever the season, weather or occasion.
£15.99 Granta

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Garlic soup: cold weather comfort

In these freezing temperatures, a comforting bowl of soup takes some beating and particularly when it can be thrown together with ingredients you might already have handy. Don't let the amount of garlic put you off as its flavour really mellows when it's cooked slowly (and it's so healthy). This recipe was originally taken from Sainsbury's Magazine.

3 onions, peeled and chopped
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
50g butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 whole garlic bulb, peeled and roughly chopped
2 large potatoes peeled and diced
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock (or water)
200ml double cream (I didn't include this as it tasted creamy enough)
freshly ground black pepper

For garnish:
4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thinly
thyme leaves (optional)

Serves 4

In a saucepan, in 40g of the butter and the olive oil cook the onions, bay leaves and thyme until the onion is soft, but not coloured – this takes about 10 minutes. Add the chopped garlic, stir, cover and cook for another 10 minutes, checking from time to time to make sure it doesn't burn. Add the potatoes, stir together and cook for 5 minutes before adding the stock (or water). Bring to the boil and cook, partially covered for 20 minutes or until everything is soft.

Add the cream (if desired) and the remaining butter. Liquidise with a hand blender until velvety smooth, taste and season with salt and pepper. For the garnish, warm the oil and fry the sliced garlic until pale golden brown and crisp; you can include some more thyme if you like.

Serve with crusty bread, relax and enjoy.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

A taste of Californian history

A haunting and compelling aspect of wine is how it can put you in touch with the past. You can literally taste the past when you open an old bottle of wine; I once had the unforgettable privilege of enjoying a few sips of Bual Madeira from 1900 – even the drained glass smelt exquisite. Old vineyards also have their share of mystique and can transport you back in time. Particularly so in Europe whose wine culture dates back to before Roman times – some places have an almost magical aura. The sight of old vines is arresting – gnarled and weather-beaten and strangely contorted as though writhing in a primal dance. There is something thrilling about communing with the past in such a tangible way.

Vines near Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe with Mont Ventoux in the background

Recently I was starkly reminded of this. I was fortunate to attend an event with Californian Zinfandel specialist, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, who led us through a selection of his wines, some from vines dating back to the 1880s. Zinfandel was one of the first grape varieties to be introduced to California in the 1850s. In the Oxford Companion to Wine Jancis Robinson describes old Zinfandel vines as "one of California's great viticultural treasures", specifically in reference to 80-year-old vines. I've always been a fan of Zinfandel (as a full-throttle red, rather than an insipid rosé), so it was a treat to taste such high-quality, site-specific examples.

The first single vineyard wine Peterson introduced us to was Barricia which hails from a 36-acre site in Sonoma's Valley of the Moon district. The vineyard is planted with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah and dates back to the 1840s when General Mariano Vallejo (Mexico's military commandant for Alta California) traded it with his children's music teacher in exchange for piano lessons; it was replanted in the 1880s after the phylloxera epidemic. The vineyard's name is a contraction of the names of the two women, Patricia Heron and Barbara Olesen, who owned it from the 1970s until 2006, re-establishing it as a prime source of Zinfandel. We tasted the 2006 vintage: a deep, concentrated wine with complex autumnal dried fruit and tar aromas; sleek, supple tannins and was freshly balanced, despite its warm alcoholic finish (15.5°).

Barricia vineyard

This was followed by the single vineyard Teldeschi, also from the 2006 vintage. Teldeschi is located in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley – the heartland of old-vine Zinfandel – and was planted between 1913 and 1919 with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignane. Tuscan immigrants, the Teldeschis originally sold grapes to Italian home-winemakers in San Francisco. It is still in the hands of the Teldeschi family who produce their own wines as well as supplying Ravenswood with grapes. The wine was slow to reveal itself but once it had opened up, the complex sweetly spicy blackberry aromas and savoury earthy undertone began to sing out. This long, satisfying wine was surprisingly fresh and balanced given the high level of alcohol (15.5°).

Teldeschi vineyard

While discussing these fascinating old vineyards, Peterson mentioned another intriguing site which he now owns with his son, Morgan Twain-Peterson. Bedrock, originally planted in 1854 by Civil War generals William "Tecumseh" Sherman and Joe Hooker. The vineyard was later owned by George Hearst, a mining magnate and senator whose son William Randolph Hearst was the inspiration for Citizen Kane. I find this thrilling as it demonstrates the prestige these vineyards must have held if distinctive, fiercely ambitious figures such as Hearst chose to acquire them.

We didn't sample the Bedrock Zinfandel, but I look forward very much indeed to another evocative taste of Californian history.

(We enjoyed these wines with Joel Peterson at 25°-50° Wine Workshop and Kitchen. I had duck rillettes and onglet steak which were excellent with the wines but, surprisingly, the fish dishes that were also served – confit trout and salmon with spicy lentils – were unexpectedly good. I had a selection of cheeses instead of dessert which were particularly good with the single-vineyard wines.)

Photos of Barricia and Teldeschi vineyards are courtesy of Constellation Brands.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

A tale of two food mixers

I have recently come of age as I am now the proud owner of a Kenwood Chef food mixer. I grew up in a household that generally prepared food from scratch and where cakes were baked on a regular basis. My mother's trusty Kenwood Chef was central to all this and, more than 40 years on, it's still working a treat. Not for me a shiny, brightly coloured KitchenAid. I'm a Kenwood girl through and through.

It's interesting comparing the two. It's still pretty much the same solid design, but with some useful updates. The 1960s model has a pyrex bowl; my 'Premier' model has a stainless steel bowl and contemporary silver colour. Mine also has a rather clever flexible beater that fits the bowl perfectly and saves you from continually having to scrape around the bowl with a spatular.

Another recent addition is the transparent splashguard that clips over the bowl. This is marvellous! It means that you can whizz together your cake mixes or butter icing, without a great cloud of flour or icing sugar settling all over your kitchen. My Mum is really envious of this feature and hopes that one will be suitable for her mixer. My Kenwood Chef sits proudly on the counter, working hard and already a focal point of my kitchen.

And here she is, my mother Judy, enjoying her new role as grandmother, still in remarkably good shape – I hope the same can be said about me (and my Kenwood Chef) in years to come.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Autumn colour

It's been a glorious autumn here in north London and a couple of weeks ago, after dropping Alice off at school, I couldn't resist taking these pictures. Even with all the cars, the streets looked spectacular in the morning sunshine.

Going underground in Holloway: The Secret Larder

I've finally had my first experience of an underground restaurant. I'd been tempted for a while, but had been warned that some can be a bit chaotic, resulting in a very late night. I resisted until becoming aware of somewhere truly local.

It turns out that Holloway in north London is graced by the presence of super-foodie, James Ramsden and the supper club he runs with his sister. He was planning a game dinner which he organising with another culinary luminary, Oliver Thring. Perfect – it was autumn, I adore game and live within walking distance. My husband was keen, too, and we had some nice mature Burgundy to take along. Everything fell into place.

We arrived at the spacious flat in time for a Moscow Mule cocktail and a chat with fellow diners and were impressed by the level of buzzy activity in the kitchen. It already felt reassuringly professional and efficient. We already knew what was on the menu: teal salad, roast partridge and poached pears, but James had mentioned earlier in the day that we were also to be treated to celeriac soup.

We were seated and dinner was served by a very able team of helpers. There were 18 diners/guests and everything was handled quite expertly in a large open-plan room. I found the experience odd, but in a good way, as it was like being parachuted into a dinner party surrounded by people you didn't know. They were generally chatty and friendly and the other guests on our table were lively, interesting company. The pervading atmosphere was relaxed and gently convivial, but noisy due to all the hard surfaces. We were surprised that a number of guests had travelled from distant parts of London (but probably didn't have to rush home to relieve babysitters).

The food was great. The celeriac soup was velvety and warming – truffle oil adding a further touch of luxury. The teal salad was a well balanced combination of freshly dressed leaves and tender, complex, gamey meat, although I could have done with a larger portion (or perhaps that's just me being greedy!) One of the bottles we had taken along was Pierre Bise Savennières 2001 which went surprisingly well with it and was a hit with the rest of the table who were surprised that such a mature wine could taste so fresh. The partridge was particularly good. The root vegetable 'game chips' and bread sauce were delicious trimmings and the red cabbage included orange that really helped lift the rich flavours and textures. Our bottle of Roumier Chambolle Musigny 1996 was just the ticket. My neighbour at our table had brought along some Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir – a stella example of the variety from New Zealand. It was fascinating comparing the two wines and with such appropriate food. Quite a treat. This was in spite of the chunky tumblers provided – I asked for another glass so I could have two wines on the go and received a proper one with a stem which did make a difference. Would it be rude to take your own glasses to supper clubs? I wonder.

The poached pear looked stunning and was tender and deeply flavoured, served with a dollop of crème fraîche and an almond biscuit. Very chic. James then circulated with some home-made sloe gin and coffee and herbal teas were offered. These were enjoyed with chocolate truffles, biscotti and some gorgeous marshmallows studded with raspberries.

It was a really fun and different night out. I look forward to seeing what other dinners James, his sister and the rest of the team have in store.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Harbour Island honeymoon: happy memories five years on

We've just been celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary and, while practically freezing here in London, it's provided an opportunity to bask in the memory of our honeymoon, partially spent on tiny, exquisite Harbour Island.

Located in the Bahamas' remote Out Islands (the furthest away from Nassau), Harbour Island (or Briland as it's called locally) has a great sense of history and was the original capital and one of the first Bahamian islands to be colonised. Many of the buildings are more than 200 years old and our hotel, The Landing, was no exception, housed in buildings dating back to 1820. For us, the inaccessibility was part of the appeal; we flew from Miami to Harbour Island's neighbour North Eleuthera and took a small boat across the water to Dunmore Town.

Consequently, Harbour Island is not exactly overrun with tourists, tending to attract a restricted number of loyal, regular visitors who come to dive or to simply unwind. There is a handful of small hotels and the larger Pink Sands resort hotel. While we were there the marina was expanding, but the island has a number of high profile residents who I'm sure would block any major developments that would compromise the island's bijou charms or spoil the magnificent, almost luminescent beach that runs the full length of the island. Harbour island is so tiny – half a mile wide and three miles long – that one of the best ways of getting around is by golf buggy.

We spent an idyllic week at the plantation-style Landing hotel that had just seven rooms during our stay, but has expanded into another historic building, offering another five rooms and a cottage. Owners Tracy Barry and Toby Tyler put the emphasis on spacious, elegant comfort, rather than the predictable so-called luxuries found in bland chain hotels such as phones, mini-bars, tv's etc. Ralph Lauren model, India Hicks had a helping hand in designing the hotel and lives on the island. Her Island Living range of toiletries for Crabtree & Evelyn is inspired by Harbour Island.

The Landing also boasts one of the best restaurants, not to mention wine cellars, in the Caribbean. Ken Gomes, their long-standing chef, creates well-judged dishes well suited to the hot climate, drawing strongly on his Asian-Australian background. Previously, in Sydney, he worked closely with Bill Granger and breakfasts at The Landing are a particular speciality. Fish and seafood are also extremely good. Toby Tyler's lovingly selected wine collection, stored in an underground cellar – well worth visiting if you get the chance; some seriously good rums and cocktails can be enjoyed in the buzzy hotel bar. The Landing now also has a swimming pool in the lush garden, something Toby was only able to describe to us on our visit.

Harbour Island isn't just for fine-dining high rollers. There are several more modest options for visitors including Queen Conch for tasty spicy conch salad and beer (below). Arthur's Bakery is a good lunch or breakfast spot in the heart of Dunmore Town, on your way to the beach.

The Rock House is also recommended for dinner, but much more glitzy and Miami-like. This boutique hotel even has swanky cabañas around the pool. It has quite a different vibe to The Landing with its understated New England style.

Staying on Harbour Island comes at quite an expense, but for a special holiday (especially a honeymoon) in a relaxing, characterful setting, it takes some beating. We will never forget it – and yearn to return, daughter in tow.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Poems on the Underground & Museum of London Docklands

As the half-term holiday comes to an end, this is the briefest mention of a couple of memorable experiences we had during the week. One is all the more moving because of the other.

On Thursday my daughter and I were on the tube on our way to meet an old friend of mine for lunch. Across the carriage from where we sat was a poem I found particularly beautiful (click on the image below to enlarge it and read it properly). 

The poem was especially moving as earlier in the week we had been to the Museum of London Docklands. This is located in one of the few old warehouse buildings alongside Canary Wharf and it is a great place to take kids (and the journey can obviously include the Docklands Light Railway). It was surprisingly calm, feeling a bit undiscovered compared with other museums in London and is extremely children-friendly; it has many interactive exhibits and a large play area for the small ones to let off steam.

Entry is free of charge and there is also quite a stylish grown-up restaurant/bar which, presumably, gets overrun with cocktail-swilling office workers in the evenings. A large proportion of my family hails from the East End so, personally, I found the museum fascinating and look forward to returning with my parents. I also loved the exhibits concerning cooperage and bottling of all the drinks that came into the Port of London. A great place – really distinctive and fascinating.

Museum of London Docklands
No. 1 Warehouse
West India Quay
London E14 4AL
020 7001 9844

Friday, 29 October 2010

Fortnum & Mason 1707 wine bar

Down in the basement of Fortnum's in Piccadilly is a (not surprisingly) rather smart wine bar. I decided to try it out while recently catching up with a girlfriend. It was a Thursday evening and we arranged to meet in the store for a quick browse before heading downstairs for a drop of wine and something to eat. Fortnum's has a real charm – glamorous, daintily proportioned and stocked with countless luxuries and delicious treats. I am particularly fond of the wine department – budget permitting.

Once we were sitting comfortably in the sedate bar, manned by smooth, helpful staff, we ordered a delicious and versatile sounding flight of Chardonnay. As we weren't planning to drink much we requested a second set of glasses, so the wines could be shared between us. They each had quite distinct personalities, yet were stylish expressions of the variety: F & M Chablis 1er Cru Butteaux Vieilles Vignes 2008 (produced for Fortnum's by Domaine Louis Michel), F & M Upper Yarra 2009 Mac Forbes and Pegasus Bay 2007 (showing a lot more evolution than the others). This is one of a number of excellent looking flights of 3 x 125ml, some of which include real gems. Prices start at £12.50 for a rosé flight, rising to £18 for the white Burgundy flight. Our flight cost £16.50. Another tempting option is to select a bottle from the shop and pay £10 corkage, but the wine list does include an impressive selection by the bottle, carafe or glass.

We enjoyed some tapas-like dishes from the 'dégustation' menu. The various types of cured salmon (soya and ginger: especially good), cheese served with fig and almond wheel and a velouté of coco bean and white truffle (the empty cup in the picture!) were all top-notch, although the San Daniele ham could have been more finely sliced. These are priced individually or for a selection of four (£16). We concluded our meal with some Niepoort 10 year old tawny (£8 for 50cl).

If you're in the West End and fancy a smart bit of lunch or a stylish post-shopping or pre-theatre supper, 1707 would be difficult to beat – particularly in the run up to Christmas when the shop will be at its most twinkly. Highly recommended.

(Fortnum and Mason was founded in 1707.)

Fortnum & Mason
181 Piccadilly
London W1A 1ER
Tel 0845 6025694

Square Meal

1707 Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Friday, 22 October 2010

If a wine were a person, who would it be and vice versa?

I recently contributed to a book in which I had to describe my most memorable wine of 2010 and the brief included suggesting a celebrity or personality to best represent the wine. This turned out to be the most difficult part of the exercise.

This has always struck me as a useful bit of shorthand to express a wine's character and style but, in practice, it's much more tricky than you'd expect. I remember the first time I heard a wine described in this way. It was a ripe, voluptuous, rather unsubtle Californian Chardonnay that was compared to Dolly Parton. Ingenious, I thought, and far more expressive than a string of pretentious-sounding adjectives that didn't mean much to most people.

When I came to make my recent comparison, it was incredibly challenging. The main problem was that the wine in question is not the most immediately appealing wine, but unfolds with layer upon layer of haunting complexity, leaving you deeply satisfied. I ended up with a shortlist of possible candidates that included actors, writers, musicians and a certain Portuguese football manager. They are all desirable men (I am a heterosexual woman – happily married, mind) and generally quite mature (reflecting the character of the wine) and none of them set out to please in a mainstream, superficial way. Some of them are quite edgy, even having psychological problems. I'm sure this all reveals too much about me and my personal tastes!

The flip side of this is the idea of coming up with a wine that represents a particular person. We're big Arsenal fans so, for example, let's take Arsène Wenger. He is mature, cerebral and uncompromising and physically quite streamlined. I can imagine a top-notch Grand Cru Chablis with bottle age and discrete oak.

On a populist level there is, of course, George Clooney. Beautifully packaged and enjoyable in so many ways, he brings to mind great quality Champagne. Krug Grande Cuvée would fit the bill perfectly – insanely glamorous, but with surprising depth and complexity. Better than Nespresso any day.

Postscript (February 2011)
The book has now been published and fellow contributors include Steven Spurrier, Simon Woods, Tom Cannavan and Richard Hemming. I won't tell you here what was my most memorable bottle of 2010 – you need to buy the book to find out for yourself but, as a teaser, the celebrity I compared it to was Alan Rickman...

Every Wine Tells A Story: a collection of the Most Memorable Bottles of 2010 to Warm the Wine Lover's Soul, as told by 29 International Wine Experts by Tara Devon O'Leary.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

A gorgeous, eloquent glimpse of the past

I recently read Brideshead Revisited for the first time. I adore the Granada Television serial from 1981 and (now it's available on DVD) you can see what a large proportion of Evelyn Waugh's deliciously detailed observations were included in the 11 episodes. However, certain little nuggets slipped through the net. An example is this passage from the fourth chapter of the novel (in book one, Et in Arcadia Ego) when narrator, Charles Ryder, visits Sebastian Flyte at Brideshead during the long summer break at the end of their first year at Oxford.

"One day we went down to the cellars with Wilcox and saw the empty bays which had once held a vast store of wine; one transept only was used now; there the bins were well stocked some of them with vintages fifty years old.

'There's been nothing added since his Lordship went abroad,' said Wilcox. 'A lot of the old wine wants drinking up. We ought to have laid down the eighteens and twenties. I've had several letters about it from the wine merchants, but her Ladyship says to ask Lord Brideshead, and he says to ask the lawyers. That's how we get low. There's enough here for ten years at the rate it's going, but how shall we be then?'

Wilcox welcomed our interest; we had bottles brought up from every bin, and it was during those tranquil evenings with Sebastian that I first made a serious acquaintance with wine and sowed the seed of a rich harvest which was to be my stay in many barren years. We would sit, he and I, in the Painted Parlour with three bottles open on the table and three glasses before each of us; Sebastian had found a book on wine-tasting, and we followed its instructions in detail. We warmed the glass slightly at a candle, filled it a third high, swirled the wine round, nursed it in our hands, held it to the light, breathed it, sipped it, filled our mouths with it, and rolled it over the tongue, ringing it on the palate like a coin on a counter, tilted our heads back and let it trickle down the throat. Then we talked of it and nibbled Bath Oliver biscuits, and passed on to another wine; then back to the first then on to another, until all three were in circulation and the order of the glasses got confused, and we fell out over which was which, and passed the glasses to and fro between us until there were six glasses, some of them with mixed wines in them which we had filled from the wrong bottle, till we were obliged to start again with three clean glasses each, and the bottles were empty and our praise of them wilder and more exotic.
'...It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.'
'Like a leprechaun.'
'Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.'
'Like a flute by still water.'
'...And this is a wise old wine.'
'A prophet in a cave.'
'...And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.'
'Like a swan.'
'Like the last unicorn.'

And we would leave the golden candlelight of the dining-room for the starlight outside and sit on the edge of the fountain, cooling our hands in the water and listening drunkenly to its splash and gurgle over the rocks.
'Ought we to be drunk every night?' Sebastian asked one morning.
'Yes, I think so.'
'I think so too.'"

Another example is when Charles Ryder's growing enthusiasm for wine is revealed in the first chapter of book two (Brideshead Deserted). While living in Paris, Ryder is taken out for dinner by Rex Mottram, Sebastian Flyte's future brother-in-law.

"I was there twenty minutes before Rex. If I had to spend an evening with him, it should, at any rate, be in my own way. I remember the dinner well – soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in a white-wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviar aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then in its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Bèze of 1904."

A little later Ryder observes:

"I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again, lunching with my wine merchant in St James's Street, in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure, authentic accent of its prime, the same words of hope."

Thursday, 23 September 2010

28°-50° Wine Workshop and Kitchen

Late last year on this blog I waxed on at great length about a spectacular evening my husband and I enjoyed at Texture to celebrate our wedding anniversary. To my joy, a few months ago I was intrigued to hear that the team behind it was opening another restaurant, focusing even more so on wine. It sounded so exciting.

Last week I finally got the chance to experience this new venture (just off Fleet Street – see above) when I met two old wine trade friends for lunch. We had studied for the Master of Wine together (some rather more successfully than others!) and were particularly keen to take a close look at the wine list. As we had a lot of catching up to do and not a great deal of time, we played it safe by restricting our choices. We started off with Tyrrell's Vat 1 Hunter Semillon 2002 which was a mouthwateringly pithy match for the decadently rich duck rillettes. At £5 for a 75ml glass, this is a bargain for such a complex rarity.

For something to accompany our main course – we were all tempted by the onglet steak – we turned to the 'Collectors List' and the Hermitage 2000 from Domaine du Colombier, another bargain at £45. This wasn't a great year in the Northern Rhône and the wine was, perhaps, just beginning to dry out, but it had enough verve and sleek structure to work beautifully with the steak. Alternatively, we could have had Château Phélan-Ségur 1999 for £59 or Grivot's Clos de Vougeot 1999 for £85. It's a treat to enjoy mature, complex wines in a restaurant at such comparatively affordable prices.

Co-owner, Xavier Rousset has developed relationships with several individual wine collectors and is able to sell mature bottles on their behalf at 28°-50° at reduced margins. It works well all round – we get to taste otherwise unavailable wines and they make space in their cellars for newer vintages. Furthermore, even for the standard wine list, Rousset's margins are small. According to Nicholas Lander in a recent piece in the Financial Times, Rousset works on an overall gross profit of 35 percent which is half the industry norm. At time when alcohol sales are falling, this could be an effective business model. 

I can't wait to return and taste more of the treasures on offer and explore the menu more thoroughly. At the risk of being a bit over-the-top, 28°-50° is a great gift to wine lovers. (If you're wondering what the cryptic-sounding name refers to, it describes the latitudes between which grapevines grow most successfully.)

28°-50° Wine Workshop and Kitchen
140 Fetter Lane,
London EC4A 1BT
Tel 020 7242 8877

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Barbecue summer

It's still August (just) and, despite all the rain last week, we are basking in glorious sunshine under clear, bright blue skies. Typical British weather! So, don’t overlook the barbie quite yet – particularly if it has a cover and can cope with the odd downpour.

Over the past few weeks we’ve been enjoying joints of meat slowly cooked on barbecues. While visiting relatives in Dorset we were treated to a butterflied leg of lamb that had been marinated overnight in red wine. This was slow-roasted in a tray, covered, on a large kettle barbecue and was beautifully tender and juicy. (You can see all the juices in the pan in the picture below and our proud host, Roy.)

A week later, inspired by this, my husband cooked a shoulder of lamb at home on our Weber kettle barbecue, again in a roasting tray. He rubbed the lamb with rosemary, salt and pepper, sprinkled over some thinly sliced garlic and poured in a couple of glasses of white wine. The lamb spent about 20 minutes in the oven (180°C) before going on to the barbie. The coals had been arranged to the side, steeply banked, to keep the temperature low and, from time to time, the meat tray was moved away from the heat so it cooked as gently as possible, and with the lid on. After about three and a half hours the lamb had a soft, yielding texture and easily came away from the bone. The meat had the most amazingly smoky, sweet flavour and melted in the mouth. (See opening picture.)

The barbecued lamb was served very simply with a potato salad that included capers and spring onions, and a refreshing green salad.

Lamb hotpot

Our shoulder of lamb went an awfully long way (£15 from The Ginger Pig in Borough Market). Initially it fed four of us and gave us enough leftovers for a hotpot a few days later. 

In a large frying pan I sweated a diced onion, adding sliced carrots and frozen peas. The leftover lamb was loosely shredded and went into the pan with the garlic any other remains from the barbecue pan. I poured over some chicken stock (water would be fine), shook in some Worcester sauce, gave everything a good stir and poured in some cornflour mixed with water. After seasoning generously with salt and pepper, the lamb and vegetable mixture was tipped into a baking dish and topped with sliced potatoes. A bit more seasoning and some flecks of butter finished things off and the hotpot went into the oven at 180°C for about 40 minutes until the potatoes were tender and had a good colour.

To drink

The wine we drank with the lamb shoulder (and hotpot) was one of several regional French wines we bought in a supermarket while on holiday. None of the bottles cost much more than 3.5 Euros and none has disappointed. I selected Buzet, from southwest France, as I love red Bordeaux with lamb: the aromatic blackcurrant fruit and fresh acidity works so well with the rich, fatty meat. Buzet is made with the same grape varieties, but has a more rustic style that was just the ticket.