Monday, 20 June 2011

Gewürztraminer: a tart with a heart

A few days ago I had an interesting experience with a wine. It was a bit like reluctantly meeting up with an old acquaintance. My husband had recently bought a bottle of Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Alsace Gewürztraminer and I'd been putting off opening it for fear of it being too overwhelming and cloying. When I first started drinking wine I loved Gewürz, with its distinctive exotic personality; I also wore Yves Saint Laurent's Opium for a while, perhaps for similar reasons. As the years have gone by, it's as though Gewürz has become the antithesis of what I'm looking for in wine; I shy away from overly ripe, alcoholic wines. Another problem is that in recent years sugar levels in Alsacien wines have increased considerably and their labelling often fails to acknowledge this. Combined with Gewürz's low acidity, the results can be too flabby. 

Anyway, late last week I was cooking a spicy Thai inspired stir fry with prawns, plenty of fresh ginger, garlic, fish sauce, chilli, lime and coriander. It seemed the obvious choice for the Gewürz. We opened the wine and my first few sips reminded me just what a tarty tasting wine it is. This example (from the Cave de Turkheim and the 2009 vintage) ticked all the boxes: heady boudoir rose petal perfume, lychee fruit, Turkish Delight, slightly honied and off dry, with a faint touch of spice on the finish. Full on, unsubtle stuff and tasting like a cliché. 

However, as dinner continued, I felt increasingly happy to be back in Gewürz's familiar company. Although I prefer drier, more restrained examples like those produced by Trimbach and Blanck, this was, nevertheless, an unexpectedly enjoyable wine. Its opulent, voluptuous structure was a seductive foil to the spicy, tangy food, creating the effect of a deconstructed Thai curry, tempering the heat in the same way as coconut milk. Ideally, I'd like more mouth-cleansing freshness in a wine, but this had just enough to stop it tasting too cloying. The back label suggests that it would also be good served as an apéritif. I think it's too big and overwhelming for this, although possibly with some spicy nibbles like wasabi peas.

I'm now grateful that my husband picked up a bottle that I'd have passed over. It was good to spend some time again with a sassy and big-hearted old friend with such an enormous personality. 

Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Gewürztraminer 2009
Price: £7.29

Photo by Ralph Steiner: Gypsy Rose Lee and her girls, 1950.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

It's been just over a month since our meal at Dinner and since then I've enjoyed observing (especially on Twitter) what a magnet this restaurant has become, but also how very much people seem to enjoy it. It seems to be a rare example of somewhere living up to the hype. I found it easy to make the booking online (albeit for 9.30pm), but I did make an effort to do this just before the key reviews came out. A number of years ago I ate at the Fat Duck (loved the bacon and egg ice cream) and at the Riverside Brasserie in Bray Marina (another Heston project in the early Noughties and where I first had his triple cooked chips), but I haven't made it to the Hind's Head. I was, of course, absolutely delighted to hear that Britain's most exciting chef was opening a restaurant in London, headed by Ashley Palmer-Watts, allowing us to enjoying his food without trekking out to Berkshire.

Trying to keep the excitement levels under control, we arrived at the restaurant on a buzzy Friday evening and were struck by the calm, friendly welcome. We were steered to the bar where we ordered glasses of Grüner Veltliner before almost immediately being shown to our table. Having done my homework, I had a good idea of what I wanted to order. My husband was happy to go along with these choices, so we ordered the already fabled Meat Fruit and Broth of Lamb for starters. Our main courses were Black Foot Pork Chop and Sirloin of Black Angus, with a side dish of buttered carrots with caraway. Tipsy Cake and Brown Bread Ice Cream were what we settled on for dessert.

As much as we'd have loved to spoil ourselves, we selected a good value bottle of Côtes du Rhône 2008 from Roger Sabon to go with the main courses and inquired about something to partner the Meat Fruit as we still had some Grüner left. A glass of Vouvray les Argiles 2009 by Chidaine was suggested which turned out to be a bit too dry and mineral for the dish, despite its elegance and verve.

As the food is served, you realise how the deceptive the menu is, almost to the point of being dead-pan. There is also a lot of tantalising historical information about the dishes and the original source materials, with practically a bibliography on the reverse of the menu. We've kept ours as it is fascinating.

The Meat Fruit (c 1500, mandarin, chicken liver parfait and grilled bread) is a remarkable dish. Slice into this 'mandarin' and the rich, satiny parfait is revealed beneath a fine orange flavoured jelly. So clever. The sourdough toast that accompanied it was perfect. Fabulous.

My husband's Broth of Lamb (c 1730, slow cooked hen's egg, celery, radish, turnip and sweetbreads) was a revelation.

I find myself using descriptions I'd otherwise use for fine wine for this dish. On the palate it was light, subtle and quite springlike, with fresh, lifted flavours, especially of the celery and radish. However, on the finish (once you'd swallowed) the flavour of the broth itself took over – long and complex, with a delicious savoury intensity that went on and on. The textures were amazing: there were small deep-fried breaded nuggets of sweetbread and a slow-cooked egg, decadently gelatinous, as well as the crunchy vegetables. We asked how long the egg had been cooked for – one hour at 61°C in the broth, apparently. It was wonderful.

When main courses were served (which we were planning on sharing), the Black Foot Pork Chop (c 1860, pointy cabbage, Robert sauce) was placed in front of my husband and I had the Sirloin of Black Angus (c 1830, mushroom ketchup, red wine jus and triple cooked chips).

My husband was bowled over by the chop (my preference, if I'm honest) and I thought the sirloin was another remarkable, deeply satisfying dish and absolutely packed with flavour. Indeed, too much flavour (especially the powerful mushroom ketchup and the red wine jus) to be able to taste the chop properly. High praise, though, from hubby who described it one of the best dishes he'd ever eaten.

However, the sirloin was a dream-come-true for meat lovers, as it was finished off with three pieces of bone marrow, topped with toasted crumbs. Another amazing combination of flavours and textures. Even the carrots were spectacularly good, beautifully scented with caraway and the chips were, of course, superb. By this point we both felt that this was jaw-droppingly good food (although I wish I'd tasted the chop before the steak). The Côtes du Rhône stood up admirably to this onslaught – its vibrant, youthful spicy fruit, complex underlying minerality and sleek, supple tannins ideal for our hunks of meat.

We moved on to desserts – Tipsy Cake (c 1810, spit roast pineapple) and Brown Bread Ice Cream (c 1830, salted butter caramel, malted yeast syrup). We'd already caught site of the pineapples twirling sedately on the magnificent spit in the kitchen, with spiral grooves cut into them, looking like something from a grand country house kitchen. The result was delicious – luscious, juicy fruit with a dark caramelised exterior. The cake was a bit baba-like, but with a tighter texture. It had a crunchy sugar coating and was doused with boozy light caramel sauce. Overall, the dish was beautifully balanced – the richness firmly kept in check by the pineapple's acidity.

The Brown Bread Ice Cream was yet another unexpectedly good dish that seemed to comprise of caramel in different forms. The ice cream sat on a fudgy base, with chewy chunks of salted caramel (with a savoury complexity), crunchy pieces of toasted oatmeal and little pieces of diced apple. Again, exciting flavours and textures were conjured up using surprisingly commonplace ingredients. This was cooking of the highest order.

We shared a glass of Szamarodni Tokaj 2006 by Szepsy (the sommelier's recommendation – she explained that she used to work at Nobu in Budapest). This complimented both desserts nicely, although we'd have been just as happy with the much less extravagantly priced Pacherenc du Vic Bilh by Brumont.

We had a little 'freebie' of white chocolate ganache with a caraway biscuit for dunking. The Tokaj was particularly good with this and helped stand up to what was pretty much fudge in a cup, like dulce de leche. I found it a bit too rich at this point in the evening (but still managed to polish it off).

It was an extraordinarily good meal, fairly priced given the quality, at about £100 per head (though watch those wines!). The restaurant felt relaxed and well in its stride and not at all self-conscious. Highly recommended.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7LA
Tel 020 7201 3833

Monday, 13 June 2011

Sourdough bread: cooking doesn't get more satisfying than this

I've been a keen cook for longer than I care to admit, as I started baking cakes on Sunday afternoons from the age of about seven. Personally, I've always found it very satisfying. I guess it taps into something quite profound. We eat to live, so I strongly believe that cooking is an important life skill; I also consider it an expression of love. It is also a wonderful way to unwind after a stressful day. When I hear people blithely admit to not being able to cook, I feel they are missing out on one of life's great pleasures. There is something soulful and primal about cooking and I like to think it helps foster a healthy relationship with food.

Since I started regularly baking bread earlier this year, my satisfaction levels have reached new heights. And, for me, baking sourdough bread is the most profoundly satisfying cooking imaginable. Creating your own starter is exciting enough, but there is something startlingly satisfying about making such a fundamental foodstuff. You can't believe that you have created such a wondrous thing! And merely from flour, water and salt. The fact that it makes you feel like a magician is probably a sad reflection of our modern food buying habits and the industrialisation of food.

Here is how I bake a sourdough loaf. They all come out a bit different as, sometimes, I don't let them prove sufficiently, but I'm working on my patience. A sourdough loaf takes about a day – but please don't be put off by this. There isn't much work involved, just the initial mixing together and the odd light knead, but, as you are using natural yeasts, time is the key factor as they take much longer to ferment or rise than commercial yeasts. This is why sourdough bread tastes so much better.

Sourdough bread (based on 'white leaven bread' from The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard)

200g white leaven at 18°C
325g cold water at 16°C
500g strong white flour
1 and a half teaspoons good sea salt crushed in a pestle and mortar
vegetable oil
semolina for dusting the baking tray

You will also need a clean, damp tea towel, a second clean tea towel, a large baking tray, a craft knife or Stanley knife, a small water spray bottle.
Optional, but helpful: a scraper, a flour dredger, a basket for proving the dough.

1. Before you start it's worth preparing a surface in your kitchen as your dedicated 'kneading surface'.

2. In a large bowl weigh out and mix together the ingredients, except the oil and semolina. This is best done with your right hand (if you're right-handed), squeezing it through your fingers to get rid of any lumps of flour. Use your left hand to scrape the dough off your right hand as the dough is very sticky. Cover the bowl with the damp cloth and leave for 10 minutes. Wash your hands.

3. Remove the dough from the bowl and place on your lightly floured 'kneading surface'. I keep my flour dredger handy to prevent the dough from getting too sticky to move around. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds (about 12 quarter turns). Try to keep the dough as sticky as you can bear, otherwise it will end up more dense and less likely to have the distinctive open, bubbly texture. Shape into a ball and leave covered on the surface while you clean out the bowl and lightly oil it.

4. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds. Shape into a ball, place in the bowl and leave covered for 10 minutes.

5. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds. Shape into a ball, return to the bowl and leave covered for 30 minutes. (The proving periods gradually get longer and you can get on with other things in the meantime.)

6. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds. Shape into a ball, return to the bowl and leave covered for 1 hour.

7. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds. Shape into a ball, return to the bowl and leave covered for 1 hour.

8. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds. Shape into a ball, return to the bowl and leave covered for 2 hours.

9. Prepare your dry clean cloth by rubbing generous amounts of flour into one side of it. You'll need plenty of flour to stop the dough from sticking. Floured side up, use it to line a bowl or, ideally, a proving basket (I use a cheap plastic one with a 30cm diameter – see below). Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds, shape into a ball and, seam side upwards place into the cloth-lined bowl or basket. Either fold the cloth over the dough or cover it with your damp cloth and leave for 5 hours or for as long it takes to almost double in height. This obviously depends on the weather and how warm it is in your kitchen.

10. Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7. Dust the baking tray with semolina. Upturn your loaf onto the tray. With the craft knife, cut a four line grid shape or a circle into the surface of the loaf. Before putting it in the oven, spray the surface with water. Be generous with the water and also spray into the oven. The moisture helps the loaf to rise.

11. Bake the loaf for about 45–50 minutes. Check to see whether is has cooked by knocking on the bottom – it should sound hollow. Allow to cool on a wire rack. As this makes a large loaf, it's worth cutting it in two, wrapping one half in plenty of clingfilm and freezing it for another time. I do like to prolong the satisfaction!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Naturally interesting

Here in the UK there seems to be a big fuss at the moment about natural wines – strange, really, given that natural wine bars are already quite commonplace in France. Perhaps it's because wine is much more inherent to French culture and proximity to wine regions allows these potentially fragile wines to be served in more favourable conditions. ('Natural wine' is an unregulated term, but suggests that the wine has been made with minimal intervention and low levels of sulphur dioxide; here is a good explanation.) The growing presence of these wines in the UK and the Natural Wine Fair that took place in May at Borough Market have generated some surprisingly heated reactions. I wasn't able to attend the event, but I'd like to taste more of these wines, being a lover of quirkier wines (and bored with the anonymous, bland tasting alcoholic fruit juice that now passes as wine).

I did, however, enjoy some delicious natural wine over lunch recently. We selected sharing platters of cheese and charcuterie which were complemented superbly by the lively rusticity and fresh acidity of Terragno Dolcetto from the Colli Tortonesi in Piedmont. When the wine was first opened, perhaps because I was looking for it, I detected some cideriness on the finish. However, this soon cleared and I was struck by the wine's vibrant, authentic character. It had quite a funky aromatic bitter cherry nose, earthy, stoney and smoky. On the palate, yes, it was rustic, but it also had great purity of fruit. It evolved in the glass and, at one point, I got a delicious hint of marzipan on the finish, albeit bone dry. What's more, we were at Black's Club in Soho which was the ideal setting for this – atmospheric, bohemian and not remotely corporate.

We didn't finish the bottle, so I was able to bring it home where I polished it off with my husband. He particularly enjoyed it. By then, after several hours' exposure to air, it was tasting more gamey and savoury. It made no difference to my husband that this was a natural wine – we just prefer satisfying, well balanced, refreshing wines that don't taste mucked about with. The Terragno ticked all the boxes.

I don't understand why people are being so polarised by these wines. Recalling my Oddbins days in the early 1990s, specialist beers have had a large following for a long time (even the challengingly tangy lambic beers which we had no trouble selling) and Belgo restaurants probably played a significant role in raising their profile in the same way that bars and restaurants in London such as Terroirs and Artisan and Vine are introducing people to natural wines. There is now a definite backlash against the might of the supermarkets and the industrialisation of food (and drink), with people increasing concerned about the provenance of what they consume. Watch this space...

Terragno Colli Tortonesi Dolcetto 2009, Valli Unite
available from Aubert and Mascoli