Thursday, 29 September 2011

Butternut squash risotto with chorizo and sage

Here in London we are currently basking in unseasonably hot weather – just like earlier this year when we were sunbathing and barbecuing over the Easter weekend. It's quite surreal for those of us who love the change of season and autumn produce. However, I'm not complaining. So, if you're not too busy tracking down charcoal or preparing salads, here's an easy autumnal supper.

For two servings, peel, shred or finely chop a half a butternut squash. As uncooked squash is quite hard, this is easiest done in a food processor. Melt some butter in a deep sauté pan and sweat a finely chopped onion for a few minutes until translucent (you only need a small onion). Add the squash, stir around and then add 150g risotto rice (ideally arborio or carnaroli). Turn up the heat and stir well for a couple of minutes before pouring in a generous splash of white wine or vermouth, allowing it to bubble fiercely and reduce. Add about half a litre of vegetable or chicken stock (home-made or from a cube – most recently we used a Maggi vegetable bouillon cube) kept warm in a separate pan. A few strands of saffron are a good addition to this dish and can be sprinkled in at this stage.

I'm afraid I cheat with risottos and start off by adding about half a litre of stock, covering (drowning) the rice, stirring well and only adding more once it has been absorbed. In total I use about a litre or so. I don't use the traditional ladle-by-ladle method. I check the rice intermittently, stirring, adding more stock and letting it cook for longer. If I've run out of stock and the risotto looks a bit dry or if needs more cooking, just add some hot water (or more stock). I do this two or three times during the 20 minutes the risotto takes to cook. Once the rice is sufficiently tender, remove the pan from the heat and allow to rest for a minute before adding cubed butter and, if you like, grated Parmesan (or Grana Padano), season and stir well.

This risotto is particularly good with a few fried slices of chorizo and sage leaves fried in butter. The chorizo bleeds delicious peppery oil into the risotto and all the colours combine beautifully.

A tasty way of using up leftover risotto is to shape them into patties (a bit like arancini, but without the stuffing) and shallow fry until golden and crisp. They make a great lunch with some salad leaves, topped with a fried egg (and a glass of chilled crisp white wine).

We spent part of our recent summer holiday in France on the Mediterranean, just south of Perpignan. Further down the coast is Collioure which makes some intriguing saline, savoury wines based on Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Marsanne, Rousanne and Vermentino, as well as the gutsy reds for which it is better known. Grapes from these old terraced vineyards also go into local port-like Banyuls. Our bottle of Collioure Blanc was unexpectedly good with the risotto – cutting through the richness and complimenting the sweet and spicy flavours. However, any number of Italian whites such as my current favourites Fiano and Falanghina would have refreshing, defined structure and plenty of flavour to partner this dish.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Hotel Diderot, Chinon

My love for the Loire Valley knows no bounds. I first visited aged 14 on an exchange trip; our local town was twinned with Luynes, near Tours. A few years later I spent a year in Tours as an English language assistante in a secondary school. During that year I prepared my degree dissertation on the region's wines which gave me the excuse to visit producers in nearby Vouvray and Chinon. Not only is the Loire Valley exceptionally beautiful, but the delicious local cuisine adds to its addictive quality. It also has a soothing douceur that can calm even the most stressed Londoner. Consequently, I have to get a fix of the place on a regular basis.

Recently, our family holidays have combined a week in St Cyprien in Roussillon on the Mediterranean coast with a week in the Loire Valley near Le Puy Notre Dame. This year we had different itinerary: our usual week in St Cyprien was to be preceded by a stay in Cap Ferret near Arcachon. My Loire fix was going to be restricted to an overnight stay to break the outward journey. Luckily I'd heard of somewhere that might fit the bill and give us a short, but satisfying taste of the region: the Hotel Diderot in Chinon. As so many of the reviews were positive and the website conjured up an idyllic image, I had a nagging feeling I'd be disappointed.

Late in the afternoon and tired after a long day's drive, we arrived at the Hotel Diderot in the centre of historic Chinon. As we turned into the hotel, the owners came out to greet us warmly and direct us to the parking area. We checked in, freshened up and went downstairs for a refreshing glass of Chinon Rosé on the terrace, before deciding where to go for dinner (their recommendation, Côté Jardin in Rue du Commerce, was fine for an early supper with our five-year-old).

The Diderot is owned by siblings Françoise, Martine and Laurent Dutheil who run the place impeccably. I was worried that such a pretty, traditional looking French hotel might, like many others, look the part, but actually be quite uncomfortable and noisy. Too often I've had my sleep interrupted by teenagers on mopeds screeching around old French towns. The Diderot, in spite of the handsome antiques and the odd creaky floorboard, places the emphasis firmly on comfort. Our large family room (chambre de maître) was generously furnished and even had a selection of board games in case of bad weather, but the discretely double-glazed windows were a really caring detail. Living in a draughty old Victorian house, we find this kind of investment impressive. We had a very good night's sleep and I can imagine being there in mid-winter and feeling just as comfortable. It was also a treat being able to look down into neighbouring gardens and across the rooftops to get a different aspect of the town.

The next morning we experienced what the Diderot is most noted for: breakfast that includes an array of jams home-made by Laurent Dutheil. We were seated near their 'jam cupboard' or armoire à confitures and were served local apple juice, coffee, hot chocolate with delicious freshly-baked croissants and baguettes and, of course, jam.

We were there at the end of August, so their distinctively soft-set jams (even softer than Bonne Maman) included some recently prepared apricot with two kinds of cherry and a particularly lovely blend of red summer fruits: the evocatively named fruits de solstice de l'été. A plum jam made with three varieties of plum (greengage, mirabelle and damson) also stood out. The Loire region is often referred to as le jardin de la France – something that's truly evident here at the Diderot, with this celebration of local produce. Even a glance around the hotel garden confirms this passion: the plants are all labelled.

While we were checking out the staff inquired how we'd heard of the hotel. Laurent was delighted to hear that, as well as having been aware of the hotel for some years, I'd read about them in an edition of Waitrose Food Illustrated and had tried one of the recipes included in the piece (their book Jam in the Cupboard/L'Armoire à Confitures is available to buy at the hotel). He gave our daughter a jar of strawberry jam (one of her favourites) and asked us to bring some of our home-made jam in exchange if we return. We certainly will, although, in the meantime, I'll keep working on my jam-making skills, although our local produce here in London isn't quite as inspirational.

Note: it's worth booking well in advance as the hotel often accommodates large parties of cyclists touring the region.

Hotel Diderot
4 rue Buffon
37500 Chinon
Tel +33 (0)2 47 93 18 87

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

La Table d'Olivier Leflaive

Burgundy is a thrilling destination for wine lovers. Unlike Bordeaux's Médoc, there are no glitzy châteaux vying for your attention. The region is dominated by a limestone ridge running in an approximately northeast–southwest direction, with vineyards cascading down its southeastern side – the Côte d'Or (golden slope) which is punctuated by quaint farm buildings, and occasional old walls enclosing notable vineyards (clos). The region carries its status and remarkable heritage lightly and, for me, this has always been part of its charm. Furthermore, the word Burgundy evokes the concept of good living, making the region even more tantalising.

Unlike other wine producing nations, the French have been slow to open their doors and actively welcome wine lovers. This has been a big mistake and may be a reason why it has failed to attract new consumers. Consider, for example, outgoing Californians and Australians who expertly court customers with cellar and vineyard tours and on-site restaurants. It's all part of marketing which, to date, French wine producers have overlooked (apart from Champenois, of course, who excel at it). Needs must and things are gradually changing in France.

In the village of Puligny-Montrachet, holy grail for Chardonnay lovers, La Maison Olivier Leflaive demonstrates how the tide is turning in France regarding wine tourism. The Leflaive family, owners of celebrated Domaine Leflaive have been making wine since the 17th century; Anne-Claude has been running the Domaine since 1994 when cousin Olivier left to concentrate on his own business producing wines from the Côte de Beaune and Côte Chalonnaise which now includes a hotel and restaurant. 

During my recent visit to the region as a guest of the BIVB, after a scenic and appetising stroll around the vineyards of Puligny-Montrachet, we went to the town square for lunch at La Table Oliver Leflaive. The restaurant offers visitors the chance to taste a selection of the 82 wines produced by the company. The 25 Euro set lunch can be accompanied by one of three wine tasting options: Formule Initiation (15 Euros) comprises five wines, Formule Découverte (25 Euros) has 10 wines, as does the Formule Prestige (35 Euros) which includes more Premier Cru wines and a Grand Cru. More Grand Cru wines are available, but supplements are charged. This struck me as an affordable way of tasting a broad range of wines and experiencing the subtle differences between them. However, wines are also available by the bottle at reasonable prices. 

Our meal started with light cheesy gougères (choux pastry puffs) and a glass of Bourgogne Sétilles 2009 (a 50/50 blend of Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet): fresh, creamy and easy to drink, with a slight savoury quality. This was followed by a mini-flight of village wines from 2008: Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet with persillé de thon au Chardonnay et saumon fumé served with a fromage blanc sauce. The Chassagne was mineral and lively, whereas the Puligny was fragrant and delicate; the Meursault was more overt with a creamy, buttery nose, good minerality and fresh acidity on the palate. I'd like to taste the Puligny in a few years' time as it was a little dumb, but, nevertheless, focused and complex. The flavoursome Meursault worked well with the tuna, although not as well with the salmon which was better complimented by the other wines. All the wines were delicious with the slightly tangy, creamy sauce.

We moved on to main course poulet farci à la tapenade et sa sauce coco flan de légumes and Premier Cru wines from 2007. This dish worked brilliantly with such fine examples of Chardonnay – the coconut sauce highlighting and gently complimenting the vanilla oak aromas (Chassagne-Montrachet Abbey de Morgeot, Meursault Charmes and Puligny-Montrachet Champ-Gain). An inspired choice. Again, the Meursault was a little more advanced than the other wines, although I loved the restraint and balance of the Puligny which had delicate peacock's tail finish.

Cheeses followed perfectly complimented by a magnificently mineral, complex and savoury Corton-Charlemagne 2006 and a couple of impressive reds Pommard 2007 (supple and pure) and Volnay 1er Cru Mitans 2007 (supple lush red fruit, mineral and savoury – another excellent choice for the cheese). 

We finished our lunch with chocolate mousse and coffee before returning to Beaune for our next appointment. Next time I'd be tempted to go for an evening meal and enjoy a relaxing stay overnight to prolong the pilgrimage.

La Table d'Olivier Leflaive and La Maison Olivier Leflaive
Place du Monument
21190 Puligny-Montrachet
Tel +33 (0)3 80 21 37 65

Friday, 16 September 2011

Blackberry jelly: preserving the taste of late summer

The summer holidays have flown by and our daughter is now settling back into her school routine. The holidays were strangely punctuated by the riots and a deep sense of fear and unease. As it turned out, that particular week I had arranged to take Alice camping for a few days in Epping Forest, and it was with great relieve we drove out of London into the ancient woodlands. We were blessed with good weather and one of the activities we enjoyed was foraging for blackberries. It reminded me of my childhood in the north London suburbs when I used to go blackberrying in Epping Forest with my mother and grandmother on sunny September afternoons, my grandmother expertly hooking the upper branches with a walking stick to reach the ripest berries. Jars of jam and a freezer full of fruit pies helped preserve these harvests.

Our recent foray yielded such delicious fruit that I was determined to do it as much justice as possible and, having never made fruit jelly, I was keen to give it a go. Here is the recipe I used from Basic Basics: Jams, Preserves and Chutneys by Marguerite Patten.

Blackberry (bramble) jelly
900g blackberries
150ml water
lemon juice
caster sugar
You will also need a jelly bag or muslin and sterilised jam jars.

Wash the blackberries, put into a large pan with the water and simmer gently until very soft. Press the fruit from time to time to release the juice.

Strain through a jelly bag or muslin. For clear, pristine juice, it is important to allow it to strain as gently as possible. I left mine overnight.

Measure the juice and allow 450g sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice for each 600ml juice. Heat the juice, add the sugar and lemon juice and stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Then boil rapidly until setting point is reached, checking frequently.

Pour the jelly into hot jars and seal down. You can see from the picture below that mine has quite a firm set. Next time I'll reduce the boiling time to try to get a softer result. However, it does taste wonderful – pure, vibrant flavour and jewel-like appearance. (Go the whole hog and serve it with farmhouse butter seasoned with crunchy sea salt.)