Weekend Bake: Sage, Walnut and Sweet Potato Bread

I was looking around for a savoury sweet potato bread for ages this morning, something that would offset the sugary, toffee-like  consistency of the potatoes with a more lunchtime friendly flavour. I found recipe after recipe for sweet bread with pecans, cinnamon, honey, raisons and even a carrot-cake style cream cheese icing, but nothing that could pass as a savoury version, so there really was nothing for it; I’d have to create my own.

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This bread is a dense, sweet and filling loaf that uses spelt flour, so happens to be easier on wheat intolerant tummies. I added chopped walnuts and the last of my summer tricolour sage that I delicately plucked (ahem, yanked) from my window box to give it deliciously warm, nutty flavour that counteracts the perfumed sweetness of the orange potato flesh.

This bread is perfect served warm from the oven, sliced into thick slices and slathered in butter or served alongside winter vegetable soup and it also freezes perfectly. It’s the ideal autumnal loaf!

Don’t throw away the skins from the roasted sweet potatoes. Instead, drizzle them with olive oil, sea salt flakes and chilli flakes and bake them to make tasty little crisps. They’re a great snack on their own or are lovely when sprinkled on soups.

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Ingredients

300g spelt flour
1-2tbs olive oil
good pinch of sea salt
100ml warm water
7g fast acting yeast
500g sweet potato flesh
50g chopped walnuts
small bunch of sage, washed and chopped

Method

  • Roast the sweet potatoes in a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees centigrade for about 30 minutes until soft. I used three of varying sizes to get the 500g I needed. Scoop the cooked flesh out and let it cool on a plate.
  • Pour the flour into a large bowl, add the salt and yeast at opposite sides of the bowl add glug in the oil and warm water. Mix this around with a wooden spoon before dropping in the sweet potatoes.
  • You can mix this with your hands but this is an extremely wet and gloopy dough so using an electric mixer is a little easier. If you do decide to knead it by hand, drop it onto a lightly floured surface and make sure you have a dough card to hand as it helps to scoop the mix up and around.
  • Knead or mix for around 20 minutes to help build up the gluten strands before plopping back into the bowl and covering with a tea towel. Leave to rise for around an hour in a warm place. This loaf mix won’t ever get very big as it will be held back by the sweet potato and heavy spelt flour, but a little proving stops this loaf from being too stodgy.

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  • After the first prove, chop the walnuts and sage and knead into the dough on a lightly floured surface for five minutes before dropping into an olive oil greased and lined loaf tin. Pop in the oven at 180 degrees centigrade for about 40 minutes to an hour, until the loaf is burnished sunset colour and sounds hollow when you tap the bottom.
  • Try not to cut it when it’s too wet as the dense, almost caky mix will tear and concertina down, although I must admit, it’s quite difficult to resist this loaf when it’s ready!

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A Weekend In…Riga

Riga - Flickr-robertpaulyoung

Image: Flickr @ robertpaulyoung

The Baltic Jewel in the Crown

Often called the Paris of the East, Riga is fairy tale confection of turrets, cobbled streets and sumptuous art nouveau architecture that manages to look just as beautiful against the cold steel sky of a Baltic winter as it does against the cobalt blue of a Latvian summer.

With its thriving modern art scene, a handful of heavyweight restaurants and a thumping, glitter-coated nightlife, this mini capital punches well above its weight. If it’s history you’re after then the Old Town won’t disappoint with its labyrinthine streets lined with chichi clothing boutiques aimed at wealthy Russians, jewellery shops glowing orange with Baltic amber, bakeries and ancient stone houses that have crouched there for hundreds of years, determined to avoid the encroachment of the modern high-rises and shopping malls that circle the centre of the city.

Art Nouveau - Flickr-Jean-Pierre DalbÇra

Image: Flickr @ Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Art Nouveau staircase - Flickr-Jean-Pierre DalbÇra

Image: Flickr @ Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Riga Fact file

  • Riga uses the Euro as its currency
  • There are more Russians than ethic Latvians in Riga so expect to hear a mixture of Russian and Latvian spoken in the streets.
  • Riga is a designated 2014 Capital of Culture. Check out all the cultural goings on through the official portal at riga2014.org  
  • The app: Riga Tourist Guide has a downloadable app on Google Play with maps and sightseeing guides to the city
  • The book:  Commodore Hornblower by C.S. Forester is a book about the high seas adventures of Horatio Hornblower is set in the historic centre of Riga during the Napoleonic war

Where to stay

Image: Flickr John S Y LeeStepping into the Ekes Konvents Hotel feels like you’re stepping back in time, which is unsurprising when you consider that it was the very first guest house to open in Riga back in 1435. It was turned into a sanctuary for the widows of Guild’s craftsmen at the end of the 16th century by the City’s Burgomaster Nikolauss Eke who thought that opening the Konvents would clean up his public image after he was accused of syphoning off money from the City Treasury. Ekes was opened as a guest house in 2005 and retains the long, cloister corridors with small rooms known as cells.

Luckily for the guests, the cells are more boutique chic than jailbird with traditional furnishings, wooden floors and miniscule bathrooms expertly squeezed into the small double rooms. While the atmosphere in this tiny hotel has the potential to feature on Most Haunted Live, its smart renovation and the helpful staff on hand to highlight the best of the cities entertainment make it seem more like a family B&B than a historic sanctuary.

Nestled on Skārņu street, Ekes forms part of a pretty line of shops, galleries and restaurants facing St Peter’s church in the centre of Riga’s old town. If you’ve had one too many sips of the national liqueur, Black Balsam, then just look out for the bronze statue of The Musicians of Bremen, which is exactly opposite the hotel and which, incidentally, offers the perfect post-evening selfie opportunity.

Ekes Konvents - Flickr-natodawn

Image: Flickr @ Natodawn

What to eat

Baltic cuisine has a bit of a reputation for being all meat, beer and potatoes but Riga is fast turning into a diner’s dream with a new generation of restaurants specialising in fine dining and utilising some of Latvia’s seasonal, local ingredients like Baltic herring, berries and birch tree juice.

However, no trip to Riga would be complete without sampling some of their famous rye bread and hemp butter and drinking a Clavis Riga cocktail made with apple juice and Black Balsam, a tar-black, medicinal liqueur. Try the bread, pastries and cakes on offer at Rigensis, Tirgoņu 8.

Vincents Restaurant is 15 minutes outside the Old Town but it’s well worth the visit as it was voted the best restaurant in Latvia this year and the likes of Prince Charles, Elton John, the Emperor of Japan and Heston Bluhmenthal have eaten there. Owner and celebrated chef Mārtiņš Rītiņš produces exquisite dishes of seasonal food sourced from local producers like wild salmon and venison from the forests of Ventspils.

Pelmeni - Flickr-Leon Brocard

Image: Flickr @ Leon Brocard

If you’re short on cash and time you can’t go wrong with the hot, stodgy fare on offer at one of the Pelmeņi XL cafes, which serve up plates of steaming pelmeni (Russian dumplings) or varenyky (Ukranian dumplings) with lashings of sour cream to hungry patrons at rock bottom prices.

central market - Flickr-Fearless Fred

Image: Flickr @ Fearless Fred

It’s not all just bread and booze in Riga. Take a trip to the Central Market on the outskirts of town and browse through the seemingly endless airport hangar warehouses for anything from haunches of beef and gleaming cured fish to stacks of brightly-hued fruit and jars of golden Baltic honey. The honey, heady with lavender and wild flowers and jammed full of sticky combs, only costs a few euros and makes the perfect foodie present.

Riga market honey - Flickr-wseltzer

Image: Flickr @ wseltzer

Where to drink

  • Star Lounge Bar: head to the highest bar in Riga at the top of the Albert Hotel for a cocktail and bird’s eye view of the old town 
  • Rīgas Balzams: a favourite with diplomats, expats and well-heeled locals, this bar, unsurprisingly, specialises in glasses of the bitter local drink Black Balsam. Torņa 4, Riga.
  • D’Vine Bar: futuristic metal furnishing, a glowing ceiling and wall to wall glass make this wine and tapas bar the place to see and be seen in the city
  • I Love You: ignoring the twee name, I Love You is one of the coolest little places in Riga with dark wood, exposed brick, hardwood floors, a bohemian vibe and a plethora of decent cocktails and beers

What to do

Art Nouveau - Latvia TourismYou can’t visit Riga without taking in the magnificent architectural homage to Art Nouveau that makes up 40% of the city centre’s buildings. The best part of these UNESCO World Heritage sites is that they are free, all you have to do is wander down the streets and look up to see the artistic movement in all its gothic, lavish and sometimes downright spooky splendour. Think gargoyles, tormented faces and plenty of artistically bared breasts.

Art Nouveau architecture - Latvia Tourism

Most of the more elaborate building are found along Alberta Street, a 20 minute walk from St Peter’s Church where you’ll also find the sumptuous Riga Art Nouveau Museum at No.12. Housed in the old apartment of the architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns, the place is packed full of dainty treasures and even the winding staircase is a work of art. If you fall in love with Riga’s style then don’t forget to visit Art Nouveau Riga as it’s the only shop on the city to sell exclusively all Art Nouveau merchandise from plaster busts to silk scarves and lamps.

If you like your buildings to pack less of a pretty punch then visit the hulking Riga Cathedral, the largest place of worship in the Baltics with two-metre thick walls and an organ that comes with a terrifying 6,768 pipes. If you can fit it in, an evening at the National Opera House is a surprisingly cheap night out with performances ranging from international opera companies, jazz bands, ballet stars and cabaret artists and tickets starting from a bargain-basement £1.50.

How to get there

Riga has one major airport located at Skulte, 8km west of the city centre.  There are Airport Express minibuses that regularly shuttle passengers on the 30 minute journey between the airport and the city centre for £4 per ticket. Riga’s international bus station can be found behind the railway embankment next to the Central Market. Ecolines +371 6721 4512 ecolines.lv runs weekly coach services to Germany, Brussels, London, Moscow, Paris and Prague. Eurolines have coaches that travel daily to Tallinn, Vilnius and Tartu +371 6721 4080 eurolines.lv

Ekes Konvents offers double rooms from £47 per night based on two sharing including breakfast. To book, call +371 6735 8393 or visit www.ekeskonvents.lv

AirBaltic flies to Riga from Gatwick daily, with single fares starting from £60. Visit www.airbaltic.com  to book.

Review: Searching for the filth at Grimeborn: Madame X, Arcola Theatre

With a name that pokes unsubtle fun at one of the UK’s most elite opera festivals, Grimeborn is the Arcola Theatre‘s annual opera festival that has quickly grown a reputation for showcasing fresh adaptations of traditional operas and rarely seen operatic works and providing a receptive platform for new composers, musicians and artists.

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I have had plenty of grime this year so far and have wallowed, like a pig in muck, coating myself in some brilliant modern opera, from Benjamin Britten’s sea-lashed epic Peter Grimes to the five-hour odyssey of shit, spit and silver semen that was Matthew Barney’s bonkers and beautiful River of Fundament (and believe me, when you’ve seen a man reborn through the feces-smeared anus of a decomposing cow you can assume that you’ve become fairly immune to good old fashioned filth). So I went to Grimeborn in Dalston to see Tim Benjamin’s Madame X, hoping for another lashing of brutally brilliant modern opera, with a name like that, what more could you expect?

Inspired by Handel’s operas and Jacobean tragedies, but also littered with references spanning everything from echoes of La Traviata to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and with a score that takes you from lyric Italian operetta to Baroque chamber music with a spot of hugely effective off stage Gregorian-esque chant for good measure, Madame X is a postmodern critique of how consumerism and consumption destroys art.

It’s root, however, comes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, stealing the identity of the opera’s lovers, the artist Masetto and his fiancée and muse Zerlina, and transplanting them in his new world as immigrants, starving and near-desperate and at the mercy of their unscrupulous agent Botney. Masetto, the next big name of his generation, is forced to open his studio to a braying mob of would-be art appreciators, the aristocratic Lady Brannoch, who wants Masetto to immortalise her on canvas, and the lecherous financier Mr Wilmore (Marc Callahan).

The dastardly Wilmore – whose appearance practically screams one dimensional baddie, from his outfit of leather strangler gloves and swinging, silver-topped cane to his repertoire of threatening bass notes – takes a fancy to Zerlina and, when he can’t woo her, turns her into his own Coy Mistress by buying all of Masetto’s paintings of her. Later, he returns to offer the struggling couple an Indecent Proposal of money for an evening with Zelina, which she accepts, only to be left mutilated and murdered in the river in Act II.

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Tom Morss and Laura Sheerin sing prettily enough as Masetto and Zerlina and Morss plays Masetto’s grief with enough restraint to keep it the right side of schmaltz but both are restricted by the plot line and the libretto, which constricts Masetto into communicating solely in the titles of paintings and sends Zerlina to a conveniently sticky end.

When Zerlina’s body is discovered offstage it feels more like a plot contrivance to allow Masetto to become a more three-dimensional character than a driving force in the story line. It also seems monumentally unfair to reduce Zelina to a pliant victim and silently bump her off when she’s previously shown enough knowing sarcasm and moxy to easily avoid the advances of the amorous financier and outwit the squawking party goers.

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Jon Stainsby’s Botney (he’s the one sporting the unmistakable sign of the cad – red trousers) was one of the highlights of the performance and, despite being similarly restricted and speaking mainly in proverbs, he thrust through the melodrama, spewing cliches like a macabre agony aunt. The other was Taylor Wilson’s statuesque Lady Brannoch (if you aren’t pronouncing that like you’re clearing your throat then you aren’t doing it right), the wealthy Dowager who paid Masetto to create a flattering portrait and who had low notes that throbbed with her aching but intangible desire for youth and beauty.

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The stripped back staging probably hinted at the metaphor of baseless, empty consumer culture and worked well in the Arcola’s claustrophobically intimate setting. But I was left wanting more from this primitive and almost schoolish stage, which felt, with its jumble of blank canvasses and empty frames, not strong enough to anchor the opera’s sea of allusions and emotional histrionics.

It’s a clever concept with brief flashes of brilliance – the harpy chorus, for example, acting as figurative culture vultures, circling Masetto on his opening night and demanding: “Is it modern? I don’t like modern / Are you famous in your own country? / Is it expensive? How much is it worth?”

The singing is uniformly good, as was the score and conductor Antony Brannick’s small ensemble orchestra, it’s just a shame that it’s hampered by a sometimes mawkish libretto. Take your chances with Madame X, it’s at the RNCM Opera Theatre, MANCHESTER before it goes on tour.

Tickets are £15 (£12 concessions), contact the box office on 020-7503 1646 or visit the Arcola theatre website.

Review: Paying Homage at Homage, Waldorf Hilton

The Waldorf Hilton London, Aldwych, London WC2B 4DD /  www.homageatthewaldorf.com

I don’t make it into the West End of London much these days, that is, unless someone lovely has splashed out on a couple of cut-price theatre tickets and wants to share the frustration of taking turns to peer around an inconveniently placed pillar with me; or an out-of-towner who doesn’t know London decides that meeting ‘somewhere on The Strand’ would be a good idea.

But everytime I do venture out West, I’m always struck – and not just by the surging crowds of tourists armed with telescopic camera lenses, golf umbrellas and fun-size Primark bags – but by just how bloody beautiful this corner of grand old London really is. So I was delighted to hear that one of the grandest old dames off The Strand in Aldwych had a new chef and wanted someone to eat their way through its new menu.

3. Homage Grand Salon

The Waldorf Hilton has been welcoming glitterati like Dame Judi Dench and Elizabeth Taylor through its doors since 1908, but their new chef in the hotel’s Homage Restaurant, Richard Prendergast has only been around since May of this year and he comes with an impressive CV, with stints at hotels like The InterContinental Park Lane and The Grosvenor under his culinary belt.

The setting is as you’d expect: a smiling doorman, a dimly-lit, plush interior that’s more Mad Men than Middle Eastern opulence and a relaxed atmosphere that practically propels you into the nearest sofa and puts a glass of wine in your hand.  Homage itself is a homage to the roaring 20s, all cream pillars, nut-brown parquet floors and chandeliers that dripped crystal from the double-height ceilings.

My dining partner S and I were barely seated before the meal had begun, with waiters as silent and discreet as well-oiled ninjas appeared with freshly-baked bread and chunks of chilled butter, water and wine and barely missing a beat before arriving with our starters. S opted for a perfectly pleasing but unremarkable goats cheese and fig salad while I had the Carpaccio made from 30 day hung Scottish beef and served with a wild rocket salad and aged Parmesan, which appeared on the plate like two ruby-centred meat doilies with seared, feathery edges and were delicious, if a little thicker and tougher towards their chubby centres.

S and I hadn’t seen each other for a while, so the very fact that the arrival of the main courses actually caused a prolonged concentrated conversation break as we dissected our food, polished silverware flashing, must surely be a testament to the quality of the food, well that and we were hungry – expect to find refined potions here, not plates that are full to bursting. S’s pork came soft and unctuous, glistening with a sort of prune jam that proved, in the end to be that touch too sweet while my little fillet of butter-soft trout came with a tasty if sparse buttery, creamy sauce and some delicious little shrimp and was strewn with summer veg and pillowy blobs of herb gnocchi.

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This was swiftly rounded off by Homage’s famous Amalfi lemon tart. Lipsmackingly zesty it was, but exceptional? I think I need to go back and have another slice to be utterly sure as I’m not sure the flavour lingered long enough to warrant the ‘acclaimed’ accolade it has garnered.

It’s hard to innovate a typically classic hotel menu, especially when your clientele generally come with inherently classical tastes. The menu is about presenting fresh, delicate food with clever seasonal inflections and the occasional foray into modernism. S’s desert, for example, was a curious cubist confection of pressed layers of celeriac and berry mousse enrobed in white chocolate that was about as daring as I would expect this perfectly-executed array of British and Euro favourites to get, which is impressive…even if it did still taste a little bit like a chocolate-covered vegetable.

For more information, booking and to see what’s currently on the menu at Homage at the Waldorf Hilton, check out their website.

Review: Herring, Hooch & Huldufolk at Fika

Fika, 161 Brick Lane, London E1 6SB / 020 7613 2013 / www.fikalondon.com

Sitting on a roof terrace in Fika’s grove surrounded by autumn-hued foliage with the sounds of Commercial Street’s traffic bubbling and hissing in the distance and sipping intoxicatingly strong concoctions that tasted like the forest floor, N and I agreed that the Swedes have this Fika way of life down.

The term Fika is used as a noun and a verb to describe the uber Swedish occupation of taking time out to sip coffee and devour snacks – a very worthy pursuit – and it’s also the name of the achingly cool Brick Lane’s latest summer restaurant experiment. For the last remaining months of the temperamental British summer, this little Scandi eatery has transformed itself into the sort of enchanted forest you hope to find lurking in the pages of Hans Christian Andersen or Tim Burton’s headspace in celebration of the Huldufolk – hidden people.

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Pull up a chair now and you could be sharing your dining space as I did with a topiary reindeer or eating under an industrial lamp that’s choked with a wreath of white-painted vine leaves, although you’re more likely to spot fashion-conscious hipster pixies than anything that looks like it could have stepped out of a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale here. N and I investigated one rainy evening to see what there was to Swedish food beyond meatballs and Kopparberg cider.

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Post pre-dinner cocktail the wander in the forest started dreamily enough with N’s Tre Sorters Sill, a trio of pickled herring and crushed potato, and my Beetroot and Birch. The fish were tender, sweet and mouth-suckingly sour, although N struggled to differentiate between the three distinct pickling flavours or onion, garlic and dill.

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My dish consisted of thin slivers of near-transparent pink-stained beetroot and crumbling goats cheese with a warm, mini loaf of dense beetroot bread, rippled with purple like shot silk and tasting of earth, salt and nutty wood sorrel. The accompanying shot of birch tree water tasted like licking rainwater from leaves…in a good way – a tangy, sweet, fresh taste revelation that I would recommend to anyone.

Elderflower chicken

So there we were, strolling in the woodland quite contentedly until we got a bit lost in the wilderness with the arrivals of the main courses. N’s elderflower chicken skewers were succulent, generously-sized and flavoured with the merest hint of sweet elderflower and a wash of chili, although the accompaniment of grilled mash (basically the top of a cottage pie) seemed out of place. My main, the slow cooked and pulled ox cheek with black truffle potatoes and seasonal foraged leaves looked intimidating on the plate and proved just as difficult to eat in reality.

It was meat, plain and simple, seasoned but unsauced mouthful after mouthful of meat. The purple, truffle-scented potatoes were nice but there’s no way they could cut through the cloying, fatty richness of two tons of shredded ox cheek. Ditto the undercooked, tough-skinned jerusalem artichokes, which came unadorned and tasting of, well, earthy tubers and little else.  Halfway through, the combination of rapidly cooling meat and mash had almost glued my mouth shut in a savory paste. If you’re a dedicated carnivore with a penchant for slabs of unaltered flesh then this is your ideal dish, but it left me desperately seeking sauce and trying to conceal mounds of uneaten but much prodded ox cheek under thin layers of cold mash so as not to offend the delightfully sweet and attentive staff.

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We reached a woodland clearing with the arrival of dessert though. N’s Swedish pancakes were very much like English pancakes and came scattered with berries, splodges of chocolate spread and what may or might not have been that most unacceptable but childishly desired of pudding toppings – squirty cream.

I went full Fika with the trio of a dense, mildly sweet cinnamon bun, glass of coffee and a shot of Linie Akvavit, which I later decided must translate as either fire water, gut rot or brain killer,despite being, as the waitress insisted, ‘very popular in Norway.’

It might not quite have been a midsummer night’s dream, but it was certainly worth heading down to the woods for Fika’s fresh starters and inventive cocktails alone – on that note, try the Forest Clearing cocktail or Siren’s Call, which claims arrives with a musical touch (forget the exotic promises of cloudberry, samphire and white port, it’s almost worth it just for the look of pure horror that crosses the waitresses’ faces upon ordering, as they apparently live in dread of customers demanding that they sing on delivery). Take a trip before it disappears and is reborn in a new guise.