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.