Thursday, 30 October 2008

Salon of Taste to Tuscany in six drunken days

Last week I went on holiday by mistake. But I’m quite glad about it. It all started in Torino, at the Salon of Taste…
Salone del gusto was just amazing – an unfathomably huge building brimming over with edible delights. The experience for me was, on the first day, fairly goat based. Soft goat salami (pitina), which might conceivably be the most delicious meat product I’ve ever consumed; more of a cured meatball than a salami really, rolled in maize and smoked over juniper. And Cypriot sun dried goat with sea salt and oregano. Then Violino di Capra. Yes, goat violin. A whole air-dried goat leg which looks like a violin (and is sliced as if playing a violin) but tastes like meaty, salty, aromatic joy.
(Actually, the violino that we purchased was almost tragically lost in a bar later that evening, in what has become known as ‘goat-gate’. Turns out it wasn’t lost, but perhaps our minds were, after tasting quite so many Vermentino).
In other, non-goat news, there was the Lardo. Eating thin slices of cured pig fat is officially not a chore. And then there was the Palermitan spleen bun. Unctuous offal in a bun. Has to be the new burger. A lot of dipping cheese in honey occurred after this point, and interspersing slivers of mullet bottarga with pistachio granita and oysters. It is all a blur.
The gastronomic odyssea next took in Alba’s annual truffle festa, where the main occurrence was a fairly gratuitous inhalation of truffle spores, then to pretty Bra, the headquarters of the slow food movement where Osteria Boccondivino ( cruelly forced me to eat the most ambrosial panna cotta in history. Plates were licked. Involuntary sounds were made. They made me drink some extraordinary Barolo, too. Nightmare. (But go there).

Then, via a tiny Ligurian beach holiday within a holiday (lasting 2 hours and a lot of onion foccacia) final destination, San Pancrazio was reached:
This place is something of a paradise on earth where abounds endless chianti, beauty, pecorino and generosity. And lamb smoked over rosemary in a fireplace, a stone pizza oven in which dough was obedient, poached eggs with shaved truffles, and a little trattoria where they tried really hard to destroy me with truffles and porcini, but I’m a fighter so I survived to tell this tale. Go there, too.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The Family Hobby-Limon recently returned from a trip visiting Pippa and her patner Pascal at their home in Sablet in the southern Rhone near Avignon. Hopspitable hosts to the end we were shown the best of the area at the best time of year ..vandange(the grape harvest).
Our first port of call was to the Domaine de Piaugier run by Jean Mark and Sophie Autran. The vineyards have been in Jean Marks family for generations and his father still helps out at busy periods. They primarily grow Grenache but also a little Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault and Counoire. Pippa helped out a couple of years ago so I won't go into to much detail as she can add to this with more details of the style and content of there wines!
However I did take some lovely photos so here you are!

Friday, 12 September 2008

Rillette Love

I’ve had a soft spot for rillettes for some time now, ever since my father and I purchased a glut of the goose variety from humble Intermarche in Maurs la Jolie and ate them on a misty picnic off the bonnet of the 2CV, (next to an impressive castle, which frankly just compounded my view that I’m destined to stalk the tapestried corridors of one of those beauties, imperiously ordering suckling pigs from my beleaguered chefs, after making a splendid aristocratic marriage).
Until yesterday, I’d never actually made my own rillettes, but they were so fabulous that I might now do it on a weekly basis. Rillettes are one of those lovely French things, which vary slightly from region to region but always hold true to the basic principles of cooking meat really slowly with salt and fat. Nutritionist’s dream, I say. Apparently, the rillettes of Tours and Anjou are referred to as ‘brown jam’, a fact which convinced me yesterday of their acceptability as a breakfast food - I was essentially eating toast and jam with my coffee. Mine were of Rabbit, which brings me to the other trend of my week: strangely alliterative foodstuffs.
It all began with rabbit rillettes, but before I knew it, radicchio, rosemary and red wine risotto appeared with some smoked pork belly, (psychedelic food, but it looked so pretty) and crab and cockle chowder transformed some crab stock from the freezer into joy in a bowl. I’m going to try extra hard to vary my consonants next week, it is becoming ridiculous.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Bastille action and the Whitstable oyster glut

Last weekend was a good’un for eating. The Charles Lamb celebrated Quatorze juillet in grand style on the nearest Saturday, douze juillet. Bunting traversed Elia st, Petanque pitches flanked the pub, Ricard and Rosé abounded.
And then there was our fabulous menu Français, which, apart from using most of London’s stocks of garlic and goose fat, was in our opinion a triumph. It featured Le Grand aioli, a village tradition in Provence in which you eat a lot of things dipped into a massive pot of aioli. Yum. Elizabeth David says that aioli is ‘affectionately’ referred to as the ‘Butter of Provence’ – as far as I’m concerned, butter and Provence in the same phrase can only be a happy thing. I was most delighted to be told by a French customer that it was as good as the aioli that her Grandmere in Avignon makes at Christmas. This is probably high praise, at least I like to think so...The secret? One garlic clove to one egg yolk. (Put the picture up Camille!).
Elsewhere on the menu were merguez sausages in buckwheat gallettes, Basque fish stew, Coquilles St Jacques (we really do love the 1970's) and Camille’s famed cassoulet, which suffice it to say, did not last long. The making of the cassoulet was truly a sight to behold - Camille was quite literally up to her elbows in goose fat, there is probably still a vague aroma following her around. Pig skin, garlic peel and slicks of poultry fat filled the entire kitchen, but it was all worth it for the elusive cassoulet smell…
Sunday morning welcomed me with a special Ricard hangover, but nonetheless I duly set out for my friend’s birthday day trip to Whitstable. Scorching day actually, and after knocking back 9 amazing oysters and a large bottle of cider on the beach, only a snooze would do. The day was rounded off with masses of Champagne, crab sandwiches and potted shrimp. No one could argue with that.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Carrion Call

Back in the Auvergne the other day I was somewhat shocked when during a (slow) walk in the chestnut woods, I came suddenly across 4 cows that had been actually struck by lightning. It wasn't the carrion aspect that was disturbing - (they looked as if they'd produce a fabulous glut of steak haché in which an ethical meat eater could only delight - field kill could become the new road kill) more one's own susceptibility to being similarly struck down whilst comfortably grazing. (What is it that you have to do to avoid? Go under a tree? Don't go under a tree? Stay away from les Vaches?).
My nerves were significantly calmed by the discovery back at the house of a jar of confit duck sausages - sausages happily residing in their own fat, waiting to be fried with other things. What could be nicer. Those having been put away for lunch, I demanded that leeks be harvested from the vegetable patch for leek, tarragon and watercress soup (can't garden myself, of course), and found a jar of prunes that I'd, with great forethought/greed, immersed in some Armagnac on my last visit. They had developed a not at all unpleasant alcoholic aroma. Tarte aux Pruneaux was the inevitable result, and very nice it was too.

P.s. On consulting in drastically inneffectual French with the afflicted farmer regarding the cows I discovered that a.) 16 in total were struck, and b.) they were destined to become 'croquettes pour les chiens' - dog biscuits. Ignoble ends indeed.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Cherche la Truffe!!

As the truffle season has come to a close, I find myself pining and becoming more and more obsessed with this particular fungus….
Known as the Black Diamond, the Melanosporum, or black truffle, is a tuber which has been equally feared and revered in its long history. In the middle ages it was considered the food of the devil, being both black and subterranean (even the white ones, Tuber Magnatum, look pretty dark when first exhumed).
Part of the mystique comes from their defiance in the face of attempts at cultivation, their stubbornly short season and of course their ethereal, almost intangible, yet intense flavour.
In modern days they are prized by gourmets and can fetch prices well into the thousands of pounds for a kilo. The big money they attract and the rarity of finding a good haul leads to all sorts of underhand behaviour, with truffle hunters tresspassing, following one another in the dark, cloak and dagger stuff. They usually go hunting around dawn so they don’t have to carry torches which would make them more conspicuous. No-one in France or Italy will tell you where they get the good ones – there are often offers of walks at dawn with a man and his dog, but of course they won’t show you the secret places…

Lacking a canine, and the cats not being too biddable, I took my visiting parents recently to the Domaine de Bramarel (, they do mail order!), a sort of ‘truffle farm’ near the village of Richerenche, in Provence. The roots of trees, mostly oaks and beeches (there is a variety of oak known as the truffle oak which grows on sandy banks and hillsides and is altogether lankier than its stout English village green cousin) are sprayed with spores of the truffle before they are planted out, in the hope that they will encourage the underground gems to show up.

Well trained dogs are then taken truffling when the season comes and the truffles are dug up carefully by hand. A cry of “cherche la truffe!” will send the dogs into a sniffing craze. The smell that the truffle exudes is only detectable when they are ripe and ready to eat, or else when something burrows into them, thus releasing the inner odour.

It is altogether a safer bet for the forager, but the cheating farm isn’t nearly as much fun I think as when my parents went truffling themselves in the late 50s – tins of truffles were purchased at huge expense from Fortnum & Mason; a large pig was hired from a farmer and coaxed into a jeep, a decent shovel procured, headscarves donned; a picnic was prepared and the friends set off into the Savernake Forest, where summer truffles have been recorded since at least the 18th century.

Tins were opened and truffles buried for some basic porcine training – which of course resulted in the creature’s snaffling all the Fortnum’s truffles for himself. Sniffing and digging resulted in no tuber action (at least none that the humans got hold of), truffle-free picnic was consumed and piggy taken back to the farm.

I did see an advert for training for Chiens truffiers, or truffle dogs – using the same methods as police dogs – and I thought that could be a way forward - don’t you think it’s time Mascha started earning her keep?

Monday, 17 March 2008

Of starch and cheese…

I arrived home weary one evening last week, after a long train journey from France, to find my lovely cousin Anna, fresh from ski-instructing in Austria, had let herself into the house armed with a spätzle hobel and her Auntie Anita’s recipe, to prepare a restorative repast for the travellers from the warm south – we were to succumb to the joys of Käsespatzle!

Spätzle are a form of short, fresh egg noodles and can be found anywhere from Alsace to the far reaches of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Combined with copious quantities of various mountain cheeses and topped with fried onions, they are a staple for any vegetarian attempting alpine winter sports – simply the best way to pile in the starch and protein you need to keep you warm and active, plus they always seem to be prepared without the ubiquitous bits of pig one finds lurking in every corner of an Austrian menu.

The hobel is an exciting utensil (you can make spätzle with a colander but it's very messy). It resembles a flat cheese grater mounted with a hopper which slides back and forth. The almost unworkable, moist dough falls happily through the holes as it is pushed back and forth in the hopper, towards its joyful fate in a large pan of boiling water.

Once the spätzle come to the surface, they are skimmed off with a slotted spoon or spider and deposited in a dish where they are layered with mountain cheeses (gruyère and emmenthal can be substituted – or for some proper Austrian gear, visit Kipferl, the lovely Austrian café/deli in Long Lane, London EC1

Sliced onions are dusted with flour and then fried quickly in very hot fat until brown and crispy, then sprinkled on top of the Käsespätzle.

A green salad is the traditional accompaniment – and don’t forget the white wine, which helps break down the cheese, preventing it from forming a big lump inside you (well, that’s my excuse). A nice crisp Grüner Veltliner perhaps?

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Regional issues and haddock leanings

Today has been all about Brandade.

The word Brandade comes from the Provençal verb brandar, meaning to stir, (which activity I admit to relishing in all its guises). It is alleged to have originated in Nimes but is well travelled and some might say dreadfully bastardised; these accusations can as always be refuted by vague mumblings regarding regional variation. My brandade, I shall now assert, is Toulousain in origin due to the garlic content. Languedoc and Provence can whistle. On this occasion only, you understand.

Adolphe Thiers, 17th Prime Minister of France was known to receive illicit pots of the substance from his historian friend Mignet – these he ate furtively, and it is said exclusively in his library, where one might have assumed that his full attention would and should have been absorbed with affairs of state. There is no accounting for the rampant appeal of garlic and slightly rotten fish, it seems. Perhaps the Southern muck left him spent, and thus immune to other lascivious and risky entertainments that a man of his position ought avoid.

We’ve previously had brandade on our menu, but noted a slow sell, perhaps due to the word ‘salt’, and I recall substituting the salt cod for equally challenging smoked eel last summer, to mine and Camille’s (only) delight. Today’s brandade featured menu friendly smoked haddock and I therefore hope to see it ravaged by tomorrow morning. Not least because I’m experiencing a sudden resurgence in my fondness for smoked haddock and cannot reasonably subject my public to smoked haddock and bacon chowder, or smoked haddock and chard tart until the menu is again haddock free.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Cava Institute Tasting ...

Yesterday we had a legs of lamb field trip to the Hospital on Endell Street in Covent Garden. The Cava Institutes PR company kindly invited me to a sit down formal cava tasting with a master of wine which I dragged sanchia and Pippa along to. We went through the pro's and con's of new and old styles of Cava, questioning the British attitude towards it as a brand and how to change that attitude. They have a long way to go before they see a marked improvements in sales and until restaurants and independent wine shops start stocking better quality styles (instead of the cheap brands that get sold or given away in the supermarkets) they will be fighting a losing battle. Interesting though it was I was surprised not to see more restaurateurs from places such as Moro barrafina and other tapas places that have opened in the borough market area and the west end lately. Either the PR isn't being done properly or restaurateurs don't have the time or interest to sit through 50 different styles of Cava in an afternoon!

In the evening Sanchia had to work her other job at Konstam at the Prince Albert so I took Hobby for supper there ... we were also joined at the last minute by another couple Marv & Vicky. We had a wonderful meal and some great british wines. My lambs heart starter was particularly good and the rapeseed dressing with carraway and fennel was inspired on Vicky's squid. The mains were all good I had duck with marmalade and fried potatoes but the sloegin and sherry trifle was an alcoholics heaven ... basically a bramble with cream on top! The tarte tatin was also excellent with a lovely lavender cream. Sandhurst winery served us well with an good Pinot Noir but its dessert wine was incredible an apple, pear and elderflower delight!

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Pot on the fire

Today Alex and I grudgingly conceded that we are both, although not entirely incompetent, only painfully average at making pancakes. We were immediately deeply grateful that this was not a skill required of us on a daily rather than an annual basis. We are, however, fabulous in other culinary and personal ways so we're not feeling too shabby about it.

Moving on from Shrove commitments, and having re-established a love for January and February's produce (after a severe post Christmas backlash involving ennui with the chestnut) I happily surveyed the day's delivery. Roots aplenty had materialised from our new vegetable supplier, including their gift of an intriguing muddy box of Salsify. After some discussion, the roots were fried in butter and served with skate. They go by a common name of 'oyster plant' - funnily enough, Camille and I (who have been known to put away an oyster or 12) couldn't for the life of us distinguish why it all tasted so damned familiar...

The remaining vegetables, in the company of some free range chickens and various beef, suggested a day long project: Pot-au-Feu, the results of which will be apparent on tomorrow's menu. I'm hoping that few to no French purists will find grounds to criticise my broth, as it was a labour of love and is somewhat delicious.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Necks of Lamb

There has been some recent heckling as to why our blog has not yet mentioned lamb, or indeed legs. Presumably some lovely photos of our legs in the kitchen would not be unwelcome, but today lamb is of the essence.
I'm of the view that January is not the month for lamb legs to be eaten at their juicy best, but lamb neck is perfect for the type of warming wintery stew that everyone wants a piece of after battling through sleet to the cosy Charles Lamb. Last week's stew involved rosemary, capers and spelt, and was quite northern Italian in flavour (sorry Camille! FYI Camille doesn't do Italian) but I think this week I might fall under the sway of Moroccan warm spices and apricots. If the mood takes me...