Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Cap Ferret: oyster heaven

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we spent some of our summer holiday with friends on the Cap Ferret peninsular, an hour's drive from Bordeaux. Attracting well-heeled French holidaymakers with a taste for healthy outdoor pursuits and good living, it is not unlike The Hamptons in the United States: relaxed, understated, but still rather chic and bourgeois. However, it has an distinctive local industry that prevents Cap Ferret from getting too chichi as it becomes increasingly fashionable.

Cap Ferret is a thin tongue of land that runs between the Atlantic Ocean curling around, almost embracing, the 37,000-acre Bassin d'Arcachon. This is one of the country's most important oyster farming areas and the primary breeder of oysters that go on to be reared elsewhere in France. Ostreiculture or oyster farming has been present here in various forms since Roman times, and strolling around some of the small towns offers a picturesque glimpse of this industry (along with, of course, the opportunity to taste). The oyster parks and beds – marked by groups of upright stakes that punctuate large parts of the Bassin – date back to the mid 19th century when Napoleon III encouraged organised oyster farming as wild oysters were dying out. The native flat oysters (Ostrea edulis) were gradually replaced by Portuguese oysters (Crassostrea angulata) and, more recently in the 1960s, Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas).

The attractive wooden cabins used by oyster farmers date back to the late 19th century and several incorporate attractive waterside terraces for customers to enjoy local molluscs with crisp, refreshing local wine (usually Entre Deux Mers) for just a few Euros. To the south, beyond the resort town of Arcachon, the spectacular Dune de Pyla will be visible in the distance. Other local seafood is excellent, especially the small, sweet local mussels. Chez Hortense at the southerly tip of Cap Ferret serves enormous portions of moules frites with a meaty sauce enrichened with duck fat; I don't know how their chic regulars remain so trim. (This footage on YouTube is one family's take and shows the glorious location.)

Here are some photographs taken around the villages of Le Canon and L'Herbe (where we had the bargain 15 Euro set lunch at the Hotel de la Plage).

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Sacred Gin: a unique festive treat

It’s amazing what goes on behind closed doors in suburban streets. Crunching through autumn leaves, walking past comfortable Victorian houses, I found it hard to believe I was on my way to meet an award-winning distiller (or, more precisely, micro-distiller) who is based at home in north London.

Until 2008 Ian Hart was a head-hunter in the City whose main client was Lehmann Brothers. We all know what happened next, so, like many people, Hart suddenly found himself with time on his hands and wondering about his career prospects. He had studied natural sciences at Cambridge and, after some initial experimentation with microwave technology, he drew on his love of wine and other alcoholic drinks and started researching the possibilities of distillation.

Hart’s career change has happily coincided with a resurgence of interest in gin and notably London Dry Gin. New small-batch, boutique gins have been emerging such as Sipsmith from Hammersmith and Jensen’s from Bermondsey; premium gins like Hendrick’s, Martin Miller’s and Tanqueray 10 have already helped diversify and broaden the gin market.

In 2009 Ian Hart established the Sacred Spirit Company, named after one of the main botanicals (flavourings) used in his gin – Boswellia Sacra (frankincense). Using his local pub, The Wrestlers on North Hill, as an informal focus group, he developed the gin inspired by a 17th century recipe based on 12 botanicals he hand-distils under vacuum. This allows the distillation process to take place at lower temperatures, retaining the freshness and purity of the aromas.

Gin aficionados and cocktail lovers will be interested in his Open Sauce blending kits (£87.50 for 6 x 20cl bottles at 40 percent ABV) and individually bottled botanical distillates (£28.95 for 70cl; £12.96 for 20cl). My particular favourites are cardamom, mandarin, orris and juniper. I also love the wormwood which is beautifully perfumed and sandalwood-like (if you fancy mixing your own absinthe!) The range also includes vodka and he in the process of being accredited by the Soil Association for full organic status. For me it was like being a kid in a sweetshop, sipping some of the best drinks I’ve ever tasted during my twenty years in the drinks trade. It was like being in the presence of a top perfumier, with a big splash of Heston Blumenthal (and liquid nitrogen) thrown in.

From a standing start and in its first year of trading, Sacred Gin won a leading trade award (Gin Masters 2009: Master Award, 98/100) and is now stocked by Fortnum and Mason and Selfridges and served in some of the country’s most fashionable bars and restaurants (for example Duke’s Hotel in St James’s and Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons). Hart has no plans to expand production levels which amount to about 1,500 bottles per month and can be handled comfortably from home. Most of the raw materials are kept in the garden shed and an old wendy house is also used for storage. Inside the house the dining room has been transformed into a lab and, looking around, the battered old reference books and countless bottles reflect the extent of Hart’s passion which is enthusiastically supported by his partner Hilary. His teenage sons who visit regularly have become used to having to turn up the volume on the TV if distillation is in progress.

Serving notes
Sacred Gin has a creamy, mouthfilling texture and delicately perfumed aromas. It isn’t as assertively juniper flavoured as other gins (eg Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Sipsmith and Jensen’s) making it better suited to short drinks and cocktails, rather than mixed into a long drink with tonic, which would overwhelm it. Alternatively, you could blend it to your personal taste with the individual botanicals, creating your own house gin.

Local stockists include Theatre of Wine on Fortess Road, The Sampler on Upper Street, Wine of Course on Archway Road, Village Food and Wine in Highgate High Street and North Hill Food and Wine. As well as the aforementioned Fortnum’s and Selfridges, Sacred spirits are also available at Milroy’s in Greek Street, Gerry’s in Old Compton Street who also stock the company’s vermouths (the Spiced English Vermouth is remarkable – and great added to the gin for a wintery Negroni). As well as Hart’s local, The Wrestlers, several pubs around Highgate now serve it including The Rose and Crown, The Flask and St John’s.

Sacred London Dry Gin (70cl) RRP £29

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Canelés: chic and versatile

In the summer while we were on holiday in Cap Ferret we were able to enjoy some of our favourite local delicacies: canelés. I vividly recall being introduced to them a few years ago when visiting the region. At the time it struck me that if Yorkshire pudding and crème anglaise (or a smart home-made, vanilla-flecked custard) got together they would produce this rather elegant, glamorous offspring. Since then I've wanted to try making them. This summer, while staying in our friends' house again and consulting one of their cookery books, I had the chance. My friend Christine loves canelés, but tends to make a savoury version with cheese and chorizo. I needed to tackle the classic sweet version first.

The recipe looked straightforward. In a large pan heat a litre of milk with 200g caster sugar, 3 sachets of vanilla sugar, 100g butter and 5cl rum until the sugar has dissolved.

Remove the pan from the heat and beat in the flour. This was a bit scary as it looked quite lumpy – I've since seen other recipes which suggest sieving or blending the batter at this stage.

Add four eggs, one at a time, thoroughly beating them into the batter until you have what the recipe describes as a pâte lisse (smooth paste). (I must say this stage was hard work and I ended up with a very achy arm!) This may also be the time to leave the batter overnight or for longer to settle as suggested in many other recipes.

Generously butter the canelé moulds and pour in the batter, but be careful not to overfill. However, buttering the moulds may not be necessary with modern silicone moulds. Some recipes suggest using beeswax instead of or combined with butter to help create the glossy, hard, caramelised exterior, and advocate using traditional copper moulds.

Bake in a preheated oven at 200°C/Gas Mark 6 for 40 minutes. (Mine needed another 10 to 15 minutes and probably could have done with longer. Other recipes suggest starting off at a very high temperature such as 230°C for the first 15 minutes to boost the caramelisation and reducing the temperature for the rest of the cooking. It's also worth being aware of how they rise dramatically and then sink back down again. Don't worry: they're meant to be quite dense and chewy.)

For a first attempt, my results weren't too bad. They lacked the even dark, glossy sheen of the professional examples, but had a good rich vanilla flavour and seductive texture, although they could have done with more of a rum kick. Nevertheless, they were delicious with coffee and made an easily assembled chic dessert, especially when served with seasonal fruit and a glass of Sauternes or Monbazillac.