Thursday, 29 November 2012

Oxtail stew: soothing and so simple

I've had a few memorable meals out recently, but there aren't many things that beat a soothing home-cooked supper. At this time of year a rich, hearty casserole goes down really well and you can leave it to cook itself. In this  instance, we went to the theatre for a matinee performance of The Lion King while our stew cooked.

This recipe is based on the one in the Leith's Cookery Bible. They suggest cooking in two stages – two hours, then skimming, adding the tomato purée and lemon juice and cooking for another three hours. I prefer to simply leave it alone for about 5 hours until the meat is tender and falling away from the bones. If you like you can take a peek from time to time and skim as necessary.

2 oxtails, cut into 5cm lengths (total weight about 1.35kg)
seasoned plain flour
30g beef dripping
340g carrots, thickly sliced
225g onions, sliced
150ml red wine
570ml water
a large sprig of fresh thyme
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon tomato purée
a splash of balsamic vinegar
juice 1/2 lemon

Wash and dry the oxtail and toss in the seasoned flour. Fry the oxtail in the dripping, a few pieces at a time, turning them around so they gain plenty of colour. Place them in a large casserole dish. Brown the carrots and onions in the same pan and add them to the casserole. Pour the wine into the frying pan and allow it to bubble, scraping any bits off the bottom of the pan. Pour into the casserole and add the water. Add all the remaining ingredients, stir, cover and cook at 150°C/Gas Mark 2 for about 5 hours (see note in introduction).

Keeping things simple and wintery, and making the most of the unctuous gravy, I served the stew with suet dumplings. Make them according to the instructions on the packet and cook on the surface of the stew. All that leaves is perhaps another vegetable – an easy and very satisfying winter meal.

To drink
Any big hearty red will do nicely here – muscular and flavoursome. We had a gutsy Grenache-Syrah blend from the Languedoc.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Rioja and game at The Gun

Winter's on its way, so an invitation to a dinner featuring Rioja and game was hard to resist. Warming, mellow Rioja seems like an obvious partner to game, beautifully demonstrated by this event at The Gun on the Thames in London's Docklands. Our party was in an elegant private room with a spectacular view across to The Dome.

We started with the only white of the evening, Vinas de Gain Blanco 2008 from Bodegas Artadi with roe deer carpaccio, foie gras, pickled carrot, glazed walnuts and truffle. With its fragrant vanilla aromas and fresh structure, the wine coped well with this deeply flavoured, complex dish which included a contrasting range of flavours and textures.

Next was the vibrantly fruity Graciano 2008 from Bodegas Tobia with Yorkshire hen pheasant, sweetbread and spinach vol au vent, morel cream sauce. The wine was fresh, lively and supple alongside this rich dish, but we found the Blanco worked well, too, with its creamy texture.

The following wine was the more traditional Tempranillo-based Bodegas Ondarre Reserva 2005 with roast breast of red grouse, confit leg and chestnut 'Wellington', bread sauce, game chips, braised red cabbage and game jus. This was a wonderfully wintery combination. The mellowing, slightly farmyardy, yet still ripely fruity wine really complimented the flavours of the dish (especially the mid-season grouse and red cabbage). The silky tannins and fresh acidity provided just the right refreshing structure.

Bodegas Lan Reserva 2007 came next with the cheese course, Lancashire Black Bomb, raisin toast and truffled honey. The wine was fresh and firm with the creamy cheese, although the truffled honey was too overwhelming.

As this was a purely Rioja themed meal and the region does not, as yet, produce any sweet wines, dessert was a bit of a challenge. A complex, mellow Gran Reserva – Bodegas Urbina 1994 – was served with dark and milk chocolate terrine with orange and praline cream. Separately they were good, but I felt that something much simpler and less sweet, such as pear poached in red wine and spices would have been a more appropriate choice for a dry red. Otherwise, it was an impressive menu and Luis Silva, from The Gun's parent group ETM, was a charming and informative host.

For details of other upcoming events at The Gun, please consult their website.

We attended as guests of The Gun/ETM Group and Wines of Rioja.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Foodie breaks: Kent – Whitstable

During our recent weekend in Kent we visited Whitstable twice. Firstly on the Saturday – cool and dreary, there seemed to be too many shops selling gifts or fancy children's ware and the town looked too cute for its own good. Nevertheless, we spent an enjoyable hour or so in a cosy café and managed to get a booking at Wheeler's Oyster Bar for the following day. This was my first time in Whitstable in more than 15 years and a lot has changed – it's fashionable now and knows it.

When we returned on the Sunday in vibrant sunshine it was quite different. Clutching a half-bottle of Sancerre from the off-licence across the road, we went straight to (unlicensed) Wheelers for an extravaganza of top-notch fish and seafood which we enjoyed perched on stools at the counter in the shop. Booking a table in the tiny rear dining room that seats 16 requires serious forward-planning (or a hefty dose of good luck). However, we were happy people watching in the front, witnessing a stream of smiling customers leaving with their delicious purchases, which has probably been the case since 1856 when Wheeler's was established.

From chef Mark Stubbs's menu, we chose several small plates including crab cake and other inspired and beautifully executed dishes such as smoked haddock with kedgeree scotch egg, scallops with pork and apple, and Thai style soup with prawn tempura. Imaginative touches included the blue cheese croutons in the salad that accompanied the crab cake and the drizzle of apple sauce.

We didn't have space for any of the desserts but I have included a picture of the menu here as it looked so interesting. Next time.

After lunch we strolled around Whitstable in the sunshine where so many people were making the most of the good weather. If we hadn't eaten earlier, we'd have been spoiled for choice. We left feeling reassured that Whitstable hadn't lost too much of its saline windswept charm.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Foodie breaks: Kent – The Linen Shed

Back in the summer we had a short break in Suffolk, but a couple of weeks ago we ventured southeast to Kent for an indulgent weekend away. We had a Saturday night reservation at Michelin-starred The Sportsman in Seasalter and had arranged to stay at The Linen Shed boutique bed and breakfast in Boughton-under-Blean on the old A2 between Faversham and Canterbury, inland from Whitstable.

As we weren't sure of our arrival time on the Friday night, our hosts at The Linen Shed, Vickie Miles and Graham Hassan, suggested The Queen's Head pub in the village, Shepherd Neame Food Pub of the Year. This part of Kent is very much 'The Garden of England', an area that bristles with pride for local ingredients, and the pub even uses produce from its own farm. My home-made burger and chips with the chef's ketchup were tasty and comforting, but husband Nathan had one of the specials, braised veal which was meltingly unctuous. Our bottle of Fontodi Chianti Classico 2008 hit the spot with both dishes.

After our first night in The French Room (with emperor-sized bed and adjoining shower room), Saturday began with Vickie's spectacular breakfast. After tea and granola bites in the lounge, we were treated to a full English in the glamorous shabby chic dining room. Vickie, who's professional background includes being a private chef, cooks everything to order, and our spread included a wonderfully crisp rosti potato and creamed mushrooms, as well as excellent local bacon and sausages and single varietal apple juice. Classy condiments included truffle salt and flavoured olive oils.

After breakfast we headed into nearby Faversham to nose around antique and junk shops and admire the handsome, medieval high street. We got back in the car and drove along the coast to Whitstable where we stopped for tea and cake and a browse through the papers in a cosy café – perfect for a cold, dreary afternoon. We'd deliberately skipped lunch as we were saving ourselves for dinner.

We returned to The Linen Shed to relax for a while and freshen up before enjoying an early evening drink with our hosts and the other couple who were staying there. Vickie's delicious nibbles included little biscuits topped with mature cheddar and pear mostarda. We then headed out for the evening to The Sportsman, a 15 minute taxi ride away. We had an amazing meal which I've written about here.

The next morning we aimed for a lighter breakfast – pancakes with bacon and maple syrup for me, but Nathan couldn't resist the full English again. In fine weather breakfast can be served on the terrace, overlooking the old gypsy caravan in the garden. We'd managed to secure a booking at Wheeler's in Whitstable for lunch, so, having packed our bags, we departed in bright sunshine. (I've written more about this here.)

Less than a couple of hours from north London, this part of Kent is ideal for a relaxing weekend break. Apart from some cottage rentals and the Hotel Continental in Whitstable with its converted fisherman's huts, there isn't much accommodation available, so the three guest rooms at The Linen Shed get booked up well in advance. And while you're in the area, don't forget to check out Macknade Fine Foods the 'Fortnum's of Faversham' – a farm shop that sells an eye-popping array of goodies from around the world, as well as local seasonal specialities. It's difficult not to go mad in there – we drove back to London with plenty of Christmas goodies.

The Linen Shed
Tel 01227 752271

Foodie breaks: Kent – The Sportsman at Seasalter

As soon as I heard about The Sportsman at Seasalter I wanted to go there. It's a Michelin-starred gastropub just along the coast from Whitstable (think oysters etc) that claims to source as much as possible from the locality, even making their own salt and butter. Refreshingly unfussy and informal. What's more, the wine list is dominated by bottles under £30, priced according to what they feel their local clientele is happy to pay. A breath of fresh air in many ways.

Seated at a bear wooden table, we were struck by the simple decor. Displayed on the walls are paintings available for sale – but not many would tempt you. That's not what you're there for, though, as a glance at the blackboards displaying the menu and wine list reminds you. The Sportsman is all about the food and was full of happy diners. As we were there at the weekend, it wasn't possible to have chef Steve Harris's renowned tasting menu which is only available during the week, however, there was plenty to tempt us.

A selection of bread and their excellent butter was brought to the table while we decided what to have. My husband selected slipsole grilled in seaweed butter and I went for poached rock oysters with pickled cucumber and Avruga caviar. We kept to fish and seafood, following on with seared thornback ray, brown butter, cockles and sherry vinegar dressing for Nathan and brill fillet braised in vin jaune and smoked pork for me. Our bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe blanc 2009 Domaine du Vieux Cazaret turned out to be a bit heavy with the more subtle starters, but came into its own with the main courses. Nathan's slipsole was surprisingly meaty and flavoursome which contrasted nicely with the saline, rich and nutty sauce (the seaweed had, apparently, been dried before being crumbled into the sauce). My oysters were creamy and briny, having only been lightly cooked. The cucumber and caviar added freshness and further complexity. Gorgeous.

The main courses were better still. Nathan's thornback ray with cockles had so many interesting elements and was expertly cooked, but, despite not looking as interesting or multifaceted, my brill was a stunning dish. The sauce was decadently rich and complex, with the balancing tang of the vin jaune, and the smoked pork belly provided a crispy meaty texture and gutsy flavour in contrast to the tender fish. It really worked. The Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, warming, with ripe nutty fruit, was a satisfying wintery choice for these dishes.

Nathan finished off with coffee and whisky trifle and I had the light, pillowy warm chocolate mousse, salted caramel and milk sorbet, both with Taylor's 20 year old tawny. Aged tawny port is a versatile choice for chocolatey desserts and here, with the salted caramel, it couldn't be happier. And neither could we – particularly when the bill arrived for just over £100. Highly recommended – but you need to book well in advance.

The Sportsman
Faversham Road
Tel 01227 273370

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Krug lunch at Murano: the taste of luxury

I've always enjoyed Krug most with food. I recall my first ever mouthful and being struck by its rich, savoury, multifaceted character. It makes demands on you – and I like that in a wine. And, yes, this is most definitely wine, rather than mere fizz, and a wine that demands your attention. The non-vintage Grande Cuvée blend includes several dozen wines from 10 different vintages, some of which might be as mature as 15 years old. After the second fermentation, the wine is aged for six years in bottle 'sur pointes' (upended), so, in total, the Grande Cuvée takes about a decade to make. The vintage wines are also magnificent, but need plenty of time to age. (At home we have a bottle of the 1990 vintage received as a wedding present seven years ago.) Krug's use of wines that have been aged in small oak barrels characterises the house style – something which can polarise consumers, but gives the Champagne more structure, an additional level of flavour and boosts its affinity with food.

Last week I had the great fortune to be invited to lunch at Murano restaurant where Angela Hartnett and her head sommelier Marc-Andréa Lévy have devised a menu to accompany Krug Champagne. We began with amuse bouches and the Grande Cuvée: Parmesan tuiles, Puglian olives, vegetable crisps, gougères, arancini with truffle cream, San Daniele ham, salami and a generous bread basket. This selection alone would have been ideal for lunch! The umami-rich ham worked brilliantly with the tangy, savoury, yet refreshing Grand Cuvée, but what really stood out was the the arancini and truffle cream – sheer bliss and an inspired partner for the wine.

Our first course was scallop with sea bream ceviche with vegetable tempura and horseradish cream served in a separate little bowl. The tempura included an orange segment that was a revelation with the wine – the combination of fresh citrus and crisp batter was perfect. The slightly zesty ceviche, creamy textured and well seasoned with crunchy salt sat neatly alongside the Grande Cuvée.

Next came ravioli of king prawn, shellfish vinaigrette and fennel purée with Krug 2000: opulent, toasty and notably savoury. Whereas the first course was quite clean and pure, this second course rose decadently to the occasion. The fennel was served in raw shavings as well as the purée – an aromatic counter-balance to the sweet richness of the king prawn. It was interesting how the dish had an enlivening effect on the wine, making it taste more youthful and bright.

Our main course of roasted English rose veal, orange chicory, cooking juices and spiced bread was served with Krug 1998 which was a deep golden colour, vinous, savoury, long and complex. The nose in particular hinted at exotic wintery spice. The combination was really special: the orange infused chicory and toasted breadcrumbs chimed perfectly with the wine and Krug just loves juicy red meat.

The cheese course was simply served chunks of Parmesan which, like the proscuitto, being so tasty and rich in umami makes a great partner to complex Champagne. Although it was good with the 1998, it was better still with the fresher tasting Grande Cuvée – this would make a totally luxurious little snack!

Unusually, dessert also turned out to be excellent with the wine. The French have a tendency of serving dry Champagnes with desserts and it generally doesn't work. However, Angela Hartnett's ginger pain perdu, Earl Grey jelly and ginger ice cream was a revelation with these wines (helped by not being too sweet). The rich exotic flavours of ginger and the pain perdu's crunchy caramelised crust worked especially well with the Krug 1998, highlighted by the aromatic bergamot note. Inspired stuff.

Finally, coffee was served with these chic and absolutely delicious salted pistachio chocolates. A lovely detail to conclude a quite remarkable meal.

Murano is offering this menu at £250 per head and more seasonal menus for Krug will follow. The restaurant is also hosting a winemaker dinner with Oliver Krug on November 28th at £175 per head.

Krug is also offering a 'unique dining experience' at a pop up described as the Krug Institute of Happiness from 5th to 8th December at 28 Swain's Lane, overlooking Highgate Cemetery. Nuno Mendes of Viajante is creating a four-course 'happiness themed' menu at £220 per head, part of an all-round endorphin-releasing experience. Further details can be found on the website.

I attended the lunch as a guest of Krug and Murano.