Monday, 30 April 2012

Passport control: an unexpected 'staycation'

I don't like the word 'staycation', but this is what we ended up having over the Easter weekend. We had planned a blissful sounding little break in Normandy in a cottage just inland from Dieppe. We'd been very busy, so needed a change of scene and a breath of fresh air. Anyway, this wasn't to be. Just as we were getting organised late on Thursday afternoon, in preparation for our 7.30 ferry on Good Friday morning, we realised our 5-year-old daughter's passport had expired a fortnight earlier.

So, after a lot of disappointment (tears, I'm afraid) and several deep breaths, I hit the Alastair Sawday website with a vengeance, determined to find a hotel vacancy near the coast a couple of hours or so from London. Consequently, our Easter ended up having a much more British flavour, driving down to the Kent coast and making the most of the Good Friday sunshine in Broadstairs and Ramsgate, before checking into the Bell Hotel in Sandwich for a tasty dinner and relaxing overnight stay.

After a hearty breakfast on Easter Saturday we strolled around historic Sandwich and picked up a few local goodies in the Sandwich Sausage Shop (a very good butchers – despite the name which our daughter found hilarious, along with the Sandwich Library and Sandwich Chocolate Shop). We then headed to Deal for a windswept walk along the front and an epic fish and chip lunch. As the weather was now so much more wintery, we were happy to be heading back to London.

The latter half of the weekend was spent with my parents in Hertfordshire and included visiting Lionel Rothschild's extraordinary collection of stuffed animals in Tring, part of the Natural History Museum (and with free entry). Tring is an attractive country town with bags of character on the edge of the Chilterns. There are some lovely walks and sights nearby, including the Ridgeway Path and Ivinghoe Beacon.

This unexpected 'staycation' had a few memorable benefits: we really enjoyed our time in Kent and were particularly taken by Broadstairs – where Dickens spent his holidays – and Ramsgate with its enormous marina and elegant Regency architecture. We'll definitely be returning soon to visit the new Turner Contemporary in Margate. The area's perfect for easy day trips from London on the train.

What's more our Sandwich souvenirs: delicious brown shrimps, salt marsh lamb and bottle of Pinot Blanc from Stopham Estate (as they say on the label: 'Made with precision and passion in Sussex') partially helped make up for the bootful of wine, Bonne Maman jam and other French treats we'd set or sights on. Parents of young children, please be warned: those first passports run out quickly and you don't want to miss the boat as well.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Koffmann's: a great value lunch in Knightsbridge

At few weeks ago a group of us had lunch at Koffman's in the Berkeley Hotel for my brother's birthday. We'd tried to book at table at Le Gavroche, a particular family favourite, but that hadn't been possible, so we considered some other places. Various Michelin-starred options were discussed and we settled on this latest venture from Pierre Koffmann. Over the years I have had the pleasure of experiencing his inspired cooking – at Tante Claire on Royal Hospital Road (Gordon Ramsey took over this sight for his eponymous restaurant) and at the Berkeley Hotel, when his restaurant relocated there (and experienced his delicious pied de cochon). Koffmann's contemporary interpretation of classic French bistro fare has always been right up my street and, back at the Berkeley, he's paired things down a bit, but still delivers the goods. On the website, they proclaim "This is informal dining for serious foodies." They're right, although it's pretty luxurious, too.

We were there for my brother's birthday and our party of eight all settled for the set lunch, a Gascon white from the sensibly priced Biarritz à Perpignan section of the wine list and a Loire red. A generous, tempting bowl of bread was brought to the table (see picture) which included a rather naughty sort of savoury croissant - buttery and herby. We sat down for a late lunch at 2pm, so the bread was very welcome (and dominated the table, tempting us). A small amuse of creamy, velvety celeriac soup set the tone and our starters soon followed. My poached egg with purple sprouting broccoli and hollandaise was just the sort of decadent starter I've got a weakness for: a perfectly cooked egg yolk oozing into the hollandaise with a few little croutons for some crunchy texture. The terrine and onion soup also looked good (but I think mine had the edge!)

My main course was chicken stuffed with spinach and mushroom, served with some seasonal vegetables and a slick of creamy potato purée. The other mains of duck, cod and pork all went down well (the duck breast: sliced and fanned out and served with a red wine sauce was another hit).

There were some big appetites around the table, so we had side dishes of cauliflower and rather tasty frites, although the food was already quite satisfying. The desserts were a little less interesting - roasted pineapple, baked cheesecake and ice creams - but rounded off our lunch nicely, and my brother's chocolate brownie came on a charmingly decorated plate with a candle. There's a lot of top-end choice in Knightsbridge (Heston's Dinner, Marcus Wareing, Bar Boulud) and Pierre Koffmann, although no longer looking for Michelin stars, is still a very smooth operator. What's more, the three-course set lunch for £25.50 is a bargain. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Calçots and romesco sauce: perfect for the barbecue

Recently we had a spell of barbecue weather, so, of course, we made the most of it. I'd been lucky and had come by some calçots from the father of one of my daughter's school friends who's a fruit and vegetable wholesaler in Druid Street, Bermondsey (one of several who used to be based in Borough Market). He likes pickles, so I gave him some of my spiced apple chutney as a little 'thank you'. (I also had some wild mushrooms from him last autumn. Generous man.)

Calçots are like a cross between spring onions and leeks and are a Catalan speciality. I first encountered them on a visit to Torres (who are based near Barcelona) whose public relations I used to handle. Calçots have a short season late winter/early spring and the Catalans get very enthusiastic about them, grilling them over charcoal until the outer leaves are almost black and serving them with peppery, nutty romesco sauce. It's a messy, but delicious process, peeling off the burnt bits and dunking the hot, juicy calçots into the sauce. Well worth getting enthusiastic about.

Initially I was expecting to keep things simple and buy some romesco, but Spanish specialists Brindisa didn't stock it, but were able to sell me some piquillo peppers and fabulous blanched marcona almonds. I slightly adapted the Moro recipe which was pretty straightforward (I didn't have quite the right combination of peppers, but I don't think it matters that much as you make it as hot or mild as you like). The big surprise, though, was how well it also went with the chicken we were barbecuing as well. It just seemed brilliantly suited to grilled food.

Note: the romesco started off as a full-on garlicky Mediterranean mouthful, but mellowed and was quite mild when we finished it off a week later. Either way, our five-year-old also really enjoyed it. Once the weather improves, we'll definitely be making more.

The romesco was great with both white and red wine: Torres' crisp, refreshing and incredibly versatile Viña Sol (particularly good with the calçots) and a big, spicy Jumilla. (We played safe and stayed with Spain on both occasions, although southern French wines, especially from just across the border in Roussillon, would also work well.)

Romeso sauce
Serves 4
100g whole blanched almonds
50g shelled hazelnuts
*4 small dried red chillis (see below)
3 garlic cloves, peeled
6 tablespoons olive oil (more might be necessary)
50g stale white bread, cut into 1.5cm cubes
100g piquillo peppers or 1 large red bell pepper, roasted peeled and seeded
1-1.5 tablespoons red wine or sherry vinegar (or mixture of the two)
1 teaspoon tomato purée
40 strands saffron, infused in 8 tablespoons boiling water
half teaspoon sweet smoked Spanish paprika (or more to taste)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

* The original recipe suggests 4 dried ñoras peppers (small and round) and half a dried guindilla pepper (spiky in shape and like a large red chilli). Sweet and/or hot paprika can be used instead, although the result will obviously be a bit different.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4. Place the nuts on a tray and dry roast in the oven until light golden brown. This will take 10 minutes or so. Remove and cool. Rub the skins off the hazelnuts.

Meanwhile break open the dried peppers and remove the seeds; crumble peppers a little further. Place in a small bowl and cover with boiling water.

Fry two of the garlic cloves whole in the olive oil until coloured. Remove them with a slotted spoon and reserve. Use this oil to fry the cubes of bread until light brown. Keep the oil for later.

You can use a pestle and mortar to make the sauce (the traditional method), but a food processor is the easier option. Start by pounding/processing the bread, nuts, garlic and peppers (soaked and roasted). Keep the pepper water handy for later.

Tip this mixture (by now a course paste) into a large mixing bowl and stir in the olive oil, half the pepper water, vinegar, the remaining garlic clove (crushed), tomato purée, saffron and paprika. Check seasoning. If the sauce still looks too dry and thick add more oil and/or water. The sauce should have the consistency of a sloppy hummous.

Serve generously. (And, as mentioned earlier, the fierce flavours will mellow after a day or so.)