Weekend bake: Cherry and chocolate ganache cake with edible trees

I decided a few weeks ago that it had been far too long since I’d done a proper bake and, since this notion coincided with the realisation that I’d missed not one, but two work colleague’s birthdays, a tuesday evening seemed like the perfect time to go a bit mental in the kitchen with an elaborate mid-week bake.

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The remit for this beast of a cake was ‘chocolate’ and what better foil for rich chocolate than ripe, fresh in-season cherries. Once you start with dark chocolate and cherries, the path to edible trees is obvious…well, it was to me anyway. The only downside was that the night I was making this monstrosity, the cake wizzkids on Bake Off were constructing edible forests of their own, which makes mine look like a poor copout. Or perhaps a poor coppice?!

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Anyway, as daunting as this cake looks, it’s actually all rather easy to do, even the ganache, which is one of the simplest things you can do with chocolate.

And you’ll need a LOT of chocolate for this cake (because chocolate makes everything that much better) and will need to prepare for just a smidge of mess in your kitchen.

When my flatmates came to investigate how the baking was progressing they found me stumbling around the kitchen, picking my way through the piles of used bowls and sad little shrivelled piping bags in some sort of post-apocolypitic fondant battleground.

Apparently I was brandishing a spoon, my face smeared with chocolate like warpaint and squawking “S’NOT READY YET!” Although by that point of the evening, I’d inhaled a lot of icing sugar dust and things had all got a bit hazy. The moral of the story is that this cake will take a bit of time, which definitely makes it a weekend bake and not a post-work, pre-bed sugar-laden extravaganza.

But it’s definitely worth a stroll down to the woods today to make it.

Cherry and chocolate ganache cake with edible trees and pistachio brittle

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There might seem like a lot of ingredients for this recipe, but you need to make a lot of sponge to get enough height to be able to stand the trees around the edge. This recipe is as easy-to-make as they come and uses real butter – unbeatable for dense, rich cakes – combined with extra-fine sponge flour, which you can find in most supermarkets.

for the cake
170g self raising flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3 tbsp cocoa powder
170g softened butter
170g golden caster sugar
3 eggs

for the decorations

white chocolate ganache
200g white chocolate, chopped finely
300ml double cream

dark chocolate ganache
200g dark chocolate
300ml double cream

pistachio brittle
50g pistachios
100g golden caster sugar

chocolate trees
100g dark or milk chocolate
50g pistachios

600g cherries

Method

  • Always start with your chocolate work as these will take the longest to set. I didn’t temper the chocolate for this recipe so it didn’t have much of a glossy sheen when it dried, but if you’d like to find out how to make tempered chocolate, just head to my chocolate bark recipe.
  • Split your 600g of cherries in half. Try to pick out the ones that still have their stems attached, double stemmed cherries are even better as these will sit on top of your cake prettily and are easier to dip in chocolate.
  • Melt 100g of dark chocolate over a bain marie or gently in the microwave and dip your stemmed cherries into it, leaving them to dry on some baking paper.

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  • Next, chop 50g of pistachios to make leaves for the chocolate trees. You can leave some whole if you like – they’ll make bigger, more impressive leaves.
  • Melt a further 100g of either dark or milk chocolate and quickly pour it into a piping bag, squeezing it all the way down to the nozzle, before roughly piping out the shape of a tree trunk and branches onto greaseproof paper. You can draw a shape with pencil before you pipe if you like, but I think these trees look better a little more abstract.

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  • I made a mixture of piped and freehand trees, which you make by smearing chocolate on greaseproof paper with the back of a spoon. The key is making sure that you get a thick enough layer on the trunk and canopy/branches so that it will be strong enough to support the crushed pistachios and won’t snap when you stand them against the cake.
  • While the chocolate is still melted, sprinkle over the pistachios to make leafy treetops. Set aside to cool and harden.

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  • Cook the cream in a heavy-based saucepan on a medium heat on the stove. The key is to take the cream off the stove when it’s just about to boil and you can see tiny bubbles bursting at the sides of the pan. Quickly pour it over the chopped chocolate and stir furiously. As it cools, the mixture will start to get thick and glossy.
  • Repeat with the dark chocolate.
  • As a general rule of thumb, when it’s thick and glossy it makes wonderfully drippy, pourable icing for cakes; when it cools a little more, it’ll be more like a rich buttercream and, if you let it go completely cold, it turns into a moussey sort of fudgy icing that’s perfect for smoothing over a cake with a palette knife. For this, I wanted the thickest kind, so I left my ganaches to cool completely before I used them to decorate the cake.
  • Make the cake while the chocolate ganaches and decorations cool down. Start by setting your oven to 170 degrees centigrade and greasing and lining two 8-inch cake tins.
  • Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy and then gradually add in the eggs, beating well after each addition.
  • In a separate bowl, sieve together the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder then start to add these dry ingredients to the butter and egg mix, gently folding the mixture with a large metal spoon.
  • When it’s all mixed together, divide it between the two cake tins and pop into the oven for about 30 minutes or until the cakes have risen and are cooked all the way through (you can test it with a skewer if you aren’t sure – stick the skewer into the middle of the cake, if it comes out clean then it’s cooked, if it’s coated in mixture then it needs longer in the oven) and leave them to cool for at least 20 minutes before you try to turn them out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
  • While the cakes are cooling, make the pistachio brittle by letting the sugar melt in a heavy-based saucepan over a low heat until it’s turned into a golden caramel and is completely liquid. Scatter the remaining pistachios over some greaseproof paper and pour the molten sugar over them and leave to harden. If you have any caramel left, you can drizzle it over your treetops.

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  • Prepare the remaining half of your cherries. These will be going inside the centre of your cake, so you just need to halve them and remove their stones.
  • When the cakes are cool, place one dome side down on a large plate (putting it dome-side down means you’ve got a flat surface to decorate) and smother it with the white ganache. Arrange cherry halves all over the white ganache and then cover those with more dollops of ganache.
  • Carefully place the second cake dome side down on top and, using a palette knife, cover the whole cake – top and sides – with the dark chocolate ganache.
  • Arrange your chocolate dipped cherries on top of the cake along with any spare cherry halves that didn’t make it into the inside of the cake. Smash the pistachio brittle into little chunks and chuck these at random on the top of the cake too. If you have bigger pieces left you can use them to decorate around the bottom of the cake between the trees.
  • Oh so very very carefully peel your chocolate trees from the greaseproof paper and carefully stick them to the outside of the cake. If they snap or branches come off, glue them back on using any leftover ganache.

You should now have a monstrously large, uber chocolatey cake to show off and to scoff. One final word of warning, this is possibly the messiest cake in the world, never attempt to eat it without napkins…unless you’re an animal like me, in which case I can thoroughly recommend going face first.

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If you aren’t a fan of dark chocolate, this would work just as well with milk chocolate, and you can always use different nuts and fruit to decorate if pistachios aren’t your cup of tea – I think this would be lovely with blackberries and hazelnuts come Autumn.

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Review: The restaurant at Leicester House Hotel

1 Leicester St, London WC2H 7BL, www.leicesterhouse.com

On the face of it, French and Asian fusion cuisine seems gastronomically baffling. How can those classically butter-drenched sauces meet those flashes of fire and flavour from the sun-soaked climes of South East Asia without a fight?

In truth, there are influences and culinary inflections sewn into the cultural fabric of countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos that date back to colonial rule and Napoleonic occupation in the 19th Century, and little inflections have remained: a mastery of pastry, the use of French language and, possibly the most telling – the adoption of that oh so Gallic bread edifice: the baguette, or as the Vietnamese made it, the bánh mì.

When I travelled around there I lived on a daily supply of these freshly baked loaves, bought from the carts that lined up along the pavements with veritable trees of bread sticks poking out of recycled plastic bags. The baguettes would burst open with a puff of steam as the vendors tore them apart to smear each half with laughing cow cheese and squashed overripe tomatoes or slicks of slowly melting nutella or slivers of paper-thin ham and damp lettuce smothered in a greasy layer of mayonnaise and sweet chilli sauce.

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So, all in all I was rather happy to be revisiting this intriguing food amalgamation when I went down to chinatown to sample the French Vietnamese menu on offer at the restaurant at Leicester House Hotel.

The place itself was tucked away in a discreet corner – if that’s even possible around this area – that seems a world away from the mass orders of sweet and sour pork and the tourist hordes taking snaps under the faux-dynasty arching gateways that characterises this particular pocket of London. Inside, its more bafflingly seperate still with its steel blue painted panelling, high-shine parquet floors and crayon-bright red and green chairs that reminded me of the sort of  drawing room you’d find in a nouveau riche stately home.

The menu here is an intriguing mix of enticing and incredulous too, with Asian classics like blackened squid sitting uncomfortably next to riviera chic moules mariniere. And it was this thread of flavour juxtaposition that continued throughout the meal with varying degrees of success.

The thing with a menu like this is that it has to be bang on to be credible. When it was it was heaven, when it was off, even by a few degrees, it clanged.

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It’s lucky then, that there were plenty of high notes to be found to counter those clangers. The squid in question, with its spicy coat of pepper, lime, chilli and salty samphire, was delicious; the marshmallow-soft steamed buns stuffed with crispy pork belly and pickled cucumber were lovely (after I’d scraped off the cloying chilli mayonnaise) and I found perfection in the simplest of things, namely their slaw, which is a crisp, zesty confusion of shredded green papaya, shards of daikon and nuggets of cashew in a mouth-tingling dressing.

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There were detours along the way though. The rich, fruity pâté covered in a golden disk of clarified butter studded with softened peppers was a lovely thing, but it came next to a pile of spiced carrot and radish salad, which was nudged to one side while I scoffed the pâté spread over toast. My tastebuds were sent packing Euro-wards again with the arrival of a huge plate of pink charcuterie only to be hauled back again with a follow up of caramelised scallops swimming happily in an Asian-infused bone (really, is there any other kind?) broth.

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By the end, I was left feeling a little foodie jetlagged when the cardamom-custard stuffed doughnuts and richly spiced, bitingly bitter chocolate pot with hazelnut cha fee arrived for dessert.

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All in all, eating at Leicester House occasionally felt like being smacked around the long haul departures lounge – in a pleasant way mind you, and with delicious flavours and an excellent cocktail list to soften the blows. In conclusion, if you want to take your tastebuds on an adventure without leaving the city, this is the place.

La Dolce Vita: Bake with Maria, Tuscany and me

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Recently, I was woken early by the lone cry of cockerel instead of the sound of some star-crossed lovers screaming at each other over who necked the last bottle of Bulmers. I opened the shutters to a rosy Tuscan sunrise spilling over a ridiculously green hillside instead of the sickly yellow glow that struggles through London’s grey skies like an undercooked egg.

And instead of a sweaty sprint for a seat on the circle line, all I had to do was wander down three flights of stone stairs and across a dewy lawn, past the potted lemon trees and into a kitchen where I and a bunch of food fanatics were about to spend five days being taught the rudiments of Italian cuisine.

I distinctly remember smiling at that notion, and yes, it probably had an unbearably smug edge to it.

Italy and London are the only places where I don’t feel to exist on sufferance. – E.M. Forster

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There’s something intrinsically magical about food and Italy, in particular, the sun-drenched, olive tree-scattered rolling hills of Tuscany. When you tell people you’re off on a gastronomic trip there their mouths tend to emit mumbles of ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh’ while their eyes glaze over in a sort of envious state of dreamy irritation — half jealous that you’re going and not them and half lost in the thought of the culinary delights you’re sure to sample.

And who can blame them? Italian produce alone deserves to be talked about in hushed tones of reverence; coming as it does from one of those Mediterranean idylls where the tomatoes are plumper and more outrageously red, the pasta is fresher and richer, the milk-white mozzarella is more delicate and everything tastes, well, indefinably better.

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My friends seemed especially envious/rage-filled when I casually explained the trip that I was actually taking: five days in the Tuscan countryside learning how to cook traditional Italian food interspersed with copious wine drinking and bread gorging at the sprawling 19th century Villa Boccella in the hills outside Lucca courtesy of Bake with Maria’s Maria Mayerhofer.

Even I couldn’t quite believe my luck as I peeled my pink-skinned tourist self out of my taxi at the top of the tiny town of Ponte a Mariano, gawping at the Villa’s Keatsian Ode-worthy facade…and a tiny part of me waiting for some bronzed Italian Baron to set the dogs on me for trespassing on his family’s ancestral homestead.

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That was until Maria Mayerhofer herself came striding around the side of the villa, smiling like I was an old friend arriving for dinner and insisting I had a glass of wine immediately. And to be honest, that’s exactly what cooking with Maria feels like: a casual lesson with a friend. It just so happens that this friend is a wizard with bread and has the ability to make even the most kitchen-phobic of chefs leave feeling like they could take on Masterchef.

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Bake with Maria opened in 2010, with classes being held in Maria’s own kitchen before demand soon outgrew her home and she moved into the fully equipped Baking Lab in November 2011. I’m no stranger to her bread masterclasses or her cooking classes either, having been tutored on how to be gluten savvy there earlier this year.

Maria has been running the five-night cooking course at Villa Boccella for four years, and it’s become a family affair with her parents, her husband Marshall and their toddler, Kasper, all coming along for the ride alongside a Bake with Maria regular and teacher, Annamarie Jones. Throughout the trip, while I and the rest of the Villa’s latest cooking ingenues were busy baking in the onsite kitchens with Maria and Annamarie, it was this crack team of family food enthusiasts who were whipping up vast panzanella salads, tackling endless mountains of washing up and hauling up vast quantities of wine for us all to glug between lessons (Kasper less so; sadly his baby arms could only carry a pitiful amount of wine).

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It didn’t take long before the sprawling, 19-bedroom Villa, with its array of eccentricities that ranged for the gorgeous – the ivory marble bathrooms, the library, the tiny stone chapel – to the ridiculous – namely the huge murals of a yoga-loving jesus that cover the dining room’s walls – began to feel like home and the prospect of leaving this sun-soaked Italian idyll more and more unappetising.

But, there’s more to this trip than just lounging around like a lizard in the afternoon heat; the course included four half-day cooking classes with the aim of making enough food to cater for the group for lunch and evening meals.

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As well as endless variations on bread, from olive-oil saturated foccacia and stone-baked pizza spilling over with bubbling pools of mozzarella to ciabattas studded with handfuls of herbs from the kitchen garden, we learned the rudiments of rustic Italian cooking.

We discovered how to massage hand-chopped mix of herbs and garlic into huge haunches of pork, juicy chunks of which was served later, and rich under the white hot afternoon sun with glasses of chilled white; how to make egg pasta by hand and roll it to the flimsy transparency of skin before stuffing it with ricotta and peppered spinach; how to layer smoky chargrilled aubergine with ladlefuls of tomato sauce and fistfuls of parmesan to make unctuous parmigiana reggiana and how to turn the lemons from the Villa’s own trees into a canary-yellow curd, which in turn became a marshmallow semifreddo coated in a slick of vanilla-scented raspberry coulis and crunchy with shards of toasted almond.

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Between throwing and proving dough we wandered into the town. Ponte a Mariano is a sleepy, pretty little residential place that feels like it hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of the world, where mustachioed men in clapped-out Nissans slow down to wish you bonjourno as you walk into the bar-cum-ice cream-shop-cum-ticket-office by the scrubby train station to spend your small change on train tickets to Lucca.

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We caught the rusted trains that shed flecks of cobalt paint for the short hop to Lucca and got lost in the city’s honeycomb streets of pink stone; using its wide central piazzas and famous tree topped tower as our marker. The days fly by in a tangle of flour-smeared aprons, sunburnt faces and evening meals spent discussing shared kitchen disasters that stretch into the balmy nights.

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On the final evening, sitting in front of the great stone fireplace burning old newspapers and feeling distinctly grumpy (and fat, by this point I was monstrously fat) I realised that I would eventually have to write about this trip and, in doing so, share it. Which, when you find a place like this, a place that becomes your own personal slice of edible Italian heaven for what feels like the briefest of moments it is one of the hardest things to do.

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Five nights at Villa Boccella with Maria and her cooking crew costs £1,250 per person (including accommodation, four cooking/baking classes, a vineyard visit with lunch, a trip to Lucca with an evening meal and a recipe book of all the dishes cooked during your stay. Excluding flights).

The next trip will run 1st-6th May, 2016.

If you can’t wait until next May to experience Maria’s authentic Italian cooking, get a taste of the trip with her recipe for fool-proof pasta recipe or her Cantuccini recipe for crunchy, nutty biscuits atypical of the Tuscan region – perfect with your morning cappuccino.

Fresh pasta

Ingredients

180g flour type 00

2 medium eggs, lightly whisked

1 small pinch of salt

Method

Whisk the flour and salt then mix all the ingredients in a bowl, transfer on the table and knead until the dough starts to clump together. If the dough feels a little sticky, then you can add a touch more flour. Knead the dough until it’s silky smooth and elastic.

Wrap in plastic and let it rest for about 20 minutes at room temperature. Keep refrigerated up to 12 hours if you don’t use it immediately.

Feed ¼ of the dough through a pasta machine at a time, keeping the rest of the dough wrapped so it doesn’t dry out. Start with the widest setting and roll the dough several times, changing the direction that your feed it in each time so that the gluten develops evenly, until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Reduce the thickness setting and roll through until the desired thickness is reached.

When you’ve rolled your pasta, it can be left in sheets to make lasagna, cut into small strips by hand to make tagliatelle or filled with stuffing to make ravioli or tortellini: just dot spoonfuls of the mixture along one sheet, dab around the filling with water and cover with another sheet of pasta, pressing down gently to seal around the stuffing mounds and cutting out with a pasta stamp or roller.

Cantuccini

Ingredients

300g Tipo 00 flour

200g sugar

100g halved almonds

2 large eggs

40g milk

1tsp orange zest

pinch of salt

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

Method

Line a baking tray with baking paper and preheat oven to 190 degrees.

Sift flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl. Carefully mix in the sugar, orange zest and halved almonds.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and add two eggs.

With a small fork, ‘gather’ up the dry ingredients to form a soft dough, which you can just handle – Don’t overwork it or the dough will become too sticky!

If it’s too soft to shape, add a little more flour and if too stiff add a little milk.

Shape into three long ‘sausages’ on the baking tray – about 4cm wide and a little over a finger thickness deep. Leave plenty of space around them to rise and spread.

Bake for 15 minutes at 190 degrees until golden brown.

Remove from the oven and while still on the baking tray, cut each ‘roll’ diagonally into 1-2cm slices to get the classic cantuccini shape.

Spread the biscuits out and put back in the oven to ‘dry’ for about 10 minutes until golden brown.

Smoking Gunn: When Tramshed met Innis & Gunn

It took me an embarrassingly long time to appreciate beer. After my quality drinking teenage years were squandered (or savoured, depending on how you look at it) testing the fine wine waters, it was only in my twenties that I started to experiment with the myriad of real beer on offer. From choking down my first pint of Hobgoblin or Tanglefoot or Moondance or whatever craft ale they were serving at my local beer festival in the brewing county of Hampshire to swilling honey-coloured lagers on my gap-yah in Asia, my passion for proper beer was a slow burner.

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Now, as an occasionally mature very-nearly-30-year-old, my love affair with beer has fully blossomed; so when Innis & Gunn– Edinburgh brewers extraordinaire – invited me to not only brew my own beer, but to sample a five course, beer-infused menu hosted at Mark Hix’s Tramshed, Shoreditch, I didn’t take much convincing.

“Innis & Gunn was created by chance when a whisky distiller approached them for help 12 years ago. Wanting a sweet-malty flavour to season their oak casks Innis & Gunn created a custom-made brew to rest in the whisky barrels. Thirty days on, our beer was thrown out and the whisky went in. Meanwhile, some inquisitive souls at the distillery had sampled the beer after its time in casks which had been transformed by the oak into an unusually refined brew. And the rest as they say…. is history.”

Also, lets be honest, how often are you invited into Mark Hix’s private library, which you have to get to by wandering under the unnecessarily macabre Damien Hirst installation and practically past the kitchen, out through the swing doors that have more than a hint of hospital about them and out the back of his cavernous East London haunt.

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On arrival, there was barely enough time to peruse Hix’s eclectic mix of anatomical and culinary literature before Innis & Gunn’s grandmaster brewer himself, Dougal Sharp, launched into a speedy lesson in everything from how to properly pour a beer to how to taste it, using the malty, honeyed Innis & Gunn original as a tester.

According to Dougal, a bottle of beer should be chucked into the glass with none of this champagne tipping nonsense, and it turned out that tasting it effectively involved some unexpected facial acrobatics as we all attempted to sip from different depths of the glass to experience the surprisingly complex variations of intensity in flavour and aroma.

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We were also introduced to the Grainfather, a portable brewing machine that was going to brew up what would eventually become our very own, personalised Innis & Gunn beer. After taking turns to make a mash by throwing in hops and hot water, the air became heavy with the smell of scalded hops and roasting grain and we left it to ferment while we tucked into five courses of beer-tinted food paired with, yep, more beer.

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Pairing beer with food is no longer considered avant garde or even particularly innovative. Pairing it with food well, however, is something else entirely, and the team at Innis & Gunn and Tramshed had it down to a fine art.

Tiny crispy pearls of beer-fried oysters came branded with ‘holy fff’ mayonnaise – a sauce as filthy and punchy as it is addictive that’s made by Brick Lane’s most famous meat purveyor: the ribman – and matched with Innis & Gunn’s nutty, ballsy Toasted Oak IPA, possibly the only beer that could take the heat of the sauce while still showing letting the delicate morsel of salty oyster shine.

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Wye Valley asparagus salad with Herefordshire goat’s curd and land cress came alongside White Oak Wheat Beer, which smelled like a meadow and left a lingering hint of bergamot and orange. Next, sugar roasted and blackened beef ribs came gleaming and slick with a Guinness mustard that was cut with Innis & Gunn’s honeyed original brew and was followed by a freshly blow torched zabaglione and a bottle of one of Innis & Gunn’s most curious brews: the Rum finish – a complex, heady amalgamation of spice and hops that became a perfect counterpoint for the pudding’s creamy sweetness.

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It all became a little hazy as the final, ill-judged course of a bubbling vat of beer-tinged cheese fondue was ladled out next to thimblefuls of Whiskey Porter, a beer that’s made distinctive by its time spent fermentation in old whiskey crates, but one thought from this night kept it’s clarity: if the beer I made earlier on in the evening was even half as good as the stuff Innis & Gunn churn out on a daily basis, then at some point in the near future, I’m in for a treat.

Originally written for Foodepedia.co.uk and can be found, here

In pictures: Lucca and Ponte a Moriano, Tuscany

What feels like a lifetime ago now, but was, in reality, just a few short months ago, I visited a little pocket of heaven on a foodie holiday to Tuscany.

It was, in short, idyllic. Heart-burstingly wonderful. And, as per usual, almost all too difficult to put into words. So I won’t, yet, I’ll say it with pictures.

Food pictures, naturally.

My arrival on this particular gastronomic trip, however, was anything but idyllic.

Landing late from a dreary london into the sweltering, disorganised melee of Pisa airport isn’t much on the best of days. Even less so on a sleepy Monday afternoon, when most members of staff seem to have decided to take an impromptu holiday and the ones who are there look at you with undisguised hostility at your audacity at interrupting their espresso break to ask in broken Italian about local trains.

A frantic sprint, a rickety train to Lucca and a taxi later, I was sitting, panting, dishevelled and probably looking every inch the pink-skinned idiot tourist, in the back of a taxi whose metre was currently reading a four-person plus luggage load and whose charge was soaring about on a par with my irritation levels.

As I smiled through gritted teeth at the grinning taxi driver, we rolled out of Lucca’s heaving city centre towards the the tiny green speck of Ponte a Moriano and, along the way, something miraculous happened.

As we began to climb the winding roads with the heat of an orange sunset spilling through the windshield, the stress of travelling began to melt away and, as we swung through the ornate gates of Villa Bocella, it felt less like arriving, and rather more like I was coming home.