Review: A little lusciousness supper club

Over the last few years, there’s been a quiet movement creeping across London – the rise and rise of the supper club: the at-home restaurant where diners can share a multi-course meal at a fraction of the cost of eating out. To give some indication of the strength of the wave of supper clubs that are surfacing around the city, you only have to look online, where you’ll even find insurance companies dedicated to providing specialist supper club cover – you know, for those evenings when your delicately wrought filo tart sends guests into a wine spilling, carpet burning frenzy.

This cosy trend couldn’t be more removed from a traditional underground food movement, however. No one minds if you talk about supper club. In fact, word of mouth and repeat custom is what’s letting these intimate affairs thrive, which is why I’ve spent a few evenings recently jumping on the supper club band wagon…evenings that have invariably involved sitting in someone’s lounge with a bunch of strangers clutching a bottle of wine from my kitchen cupboard and wondering why everyone seems to know everyone else.

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It’s important to add though, that not all supper clubs were made equal. Enter Rosie Llewellyn, a blogging, foodie powerhouse with an unblemished 5-star record on Grub Club. A perfect score is nigh-on impossible to achieve in food, because, as anyone who’s ever cooked food ever in their life knows, you can’t please everyone. You could cook an absolute blinder and still get some sad bastard whining about the shape of the plate or the fact that you’ve garnished the main course with an out-of-season herb.

I’ve salivated over Rosie’s instagram feed for months, so the thought of sampling her food first hand at her West London home filled with me undisguised joy. I’ve noticed that supper club evenings can be made or broken in minutes, often not by the food itself, but by the company. But then again, I have a sneaking suspicion that on Rosie’s evenings, like really does attract like: and that means lovely people.

While Rosie was slaving in the kitchen carving oversized haunches of crackling-covered pork belly, I was knocking back a jam jar of rocket-fuel gin cocktail and discussing the British film industry with a bunch of German creatives and a couple of regulars who clearly seemed enamoured with Rosie’s blend of no-nonsense, classic cooking – an encouraging sign if ever there was one.

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A sure sign of a good evening AT an event like this is the speed of which the meal flies, and this one passed in a blur of popping corks, platefuls of autumnal-themed food and unpretentious foodie chat (if that’s even possible).

Certain highlights sang out throughout the night though: there were tiny squares of burnished, buttery shortbread wedged into dollops of glossy tart raspberry mousse for dessert; fat rounds of expertly-picked cheese that were begging to be scooped up onto the accompanying salted biscuits in between and sugar-coated sweets made from foraged, hedgerow fruit – Rosie’s version of a Rowntree fruit pastille – that were almost boozy in their dark depth of flavour and bruised, purple colour at the end.

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What I’m getting at is Rosie is a consummate professional who makes uncomplicated, hearty British food and to whom sourcing the best in season produce is evidently paramount. There wasn’t really anything to fault with. If I’m being picky, which I suppose I should as I’m speaking for all the sad, fault-finding bastards out there (begrudgingly mind, as I genuinely loved the evening), the mouth-coating richness of the pork paired with black pudding bon bons, buttery mash and tonsil-ticklingly sharp-sweet plum-roasted parsnips was delicious, but the gravy was a little thin.

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There. I said it…what a bitch. Hopefully Rosie will still have me back for the next one.

Originally penned for Foodepedia and can be found here.

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Review: Afternoon tea at The Arch London

50 Great Cumberland Pl, London W1H 7FD www.thearchlondon.com/afternoon-tea

Somewhere along the line, afternoon tea became less of an occasional treat of the ilk that was popularised by the 7th Duchess of Bedford back in the 19th century and more of a, well, for want of a better word, ‘thing’.

Nowadays, the uber trad treat has turned into a thematic foodie experience with an infinite number of variations on offer, from all chocolate affairs like the Charlie & the Chocolate Factory version at One Aldwych to low fat incarnations such as the Intercontinental London’s Guilt-Free tea. There’s even a tea you can take while driving around London aboard a vintage bus. I know this, because I’ve tried it.

The Arch, however, is trying a different tack. This lovely little Georgian-with-a-facelift hotel in a quiet residential street tucked away from the roar of Marble Arch’s notorious traffic jams has given it’s afternoon tea some edge with an international accent and a street food vibe.

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I visited late one Friday afternoon, settled into the curve of one of their restaurant’s hard-to-leave chocolate leather couches (complete with oyster-grey velvet curtain…in case you fancy sipping your tea in private, I suppose) and worked my way around the world with their afternoon tea with a twist (£28).

The cocktail list here (which you can add to your tea to take the price up to a rather steep £38) is brief but well formed with a seductively delicate thing called Indian Clouds on it, which I discovered combined Jasmine tea infused Bombay Sapphire and butterscotch schnapps with pink grapefruit juice to create something that tasted like sweet, summer rain.

The teas were also excellent, with a Silver Needle white blend that lingered with hints of melon and cucumber and deserved a special mention. The tea itself arrived all at once on slender wooden blocks of sanded wood and, for a split second, I thought they’d delivered canapes instead of tea, so accustomed was I to seeing a tiered cake stand.

Instead of the usual sandwiches and scones, I was delivered smoked chicken, chilli, avocado and mango tortillas; mini handmade scotch eggs with Piccalilli; skewers of chicken satay; mini fish and chips with tartar sauce and that stalwart of the business away day buffet: mini cheese burgers with onion marmalade in brioche buns.

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The baby portion of fish and chips was rather good, as was the just-sharp-enough tartar sauce and the ridiculously good scotch egg with its molten yolk middle. Any place that can serve a well-cooked, runny egg-centered scotch egg on a mass scale gets a tick from me. Another standout was the poshed-up chicken select – a nugget of sesame seed covered chicken with it’s jammy slick of surprisingly fruity satay sauce.

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The burger was perfectly pleasant, even if the edges of the bun were so dry and chalky that the overall effect was of stale burger bread than soft, buttery brioche and the tortilla was fine, if lacking in enough punchy chilli or flashes of coriander for my taste. The trouble with creating a tea that’s designed to give guests a taste of foods from around the world is that chances are, some of your guests will have eaten something similar on their travels, and will be expecting as much authentic flavour as possible, instead of a watered down version.

The sweet tray was laden with sugar-rich treats from spearmint green chocolate macarons and crispy little coffee-rich eclairs to teeny-tiny raspberry and pistachio tartlets with golden pastry that snapped and crumbled into buttery perfection.

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The little fried doughnuts that were perched on the edge of the platter delighted and frustrated me in equal measure. They were featherlight and dusted with just the right amount of sugar and cinnamon. At the first bite they exploded and oozed sharp-sweet globs of applesauce that dropped onto my plate and pooled into an unctuous, sticky mess. All lovely, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much more lovely they would have been if they were served hot. Perhaps they were warm when they arrived alongside the savoury platter…I’ll never know.

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Another cold clanger for me was the rice pudding with toasted coconut. It came rich with coconut cream and layered between chunks of soft, sweet ripe mango in an elongated shot glass, which was all very nice. However, I’m of the mindset that rice pudding should never be served anything less than hot enough to slowly melt the sugar you sprinkle on it into caramel. No matter how well balanced the flavours are, all I’m going to taste when I ladle a sad, chilly spoonful into my mouth is Dickensian gruel.

I finished my tea with the final piece of the tea puzzle, The Arch’s only curiously conspicuous concession to tradition – a miniature victoria sponge. It was a little dry, a little dense and a little, well, sad among the splendor of its internationally-influenced companions. At this stage the cake here just feels a little like tradition for the sake of it and it would have been nice to see a little of the creative flair applied to the rest of the menu make it into the cake, perhaps a touch of lychee or a rose-infused fruit syrup, at any rate, something to give it a bit of welly would have been well received.

An intriguing, if not without its flaws addition to the thriving London tea scene.

Originally reviewed for Foodepedia, and can be read here.

Review: Aqua Nueva, London

Aqua Nueva 5th Floor, 240 Regent St, London W1B 3BR www.aquanueva.co.uk

The first challenge F and I had with Aqua Nueva was finding the place. Google maps stubbornly insisting that it lived above the apple store on Regent Street. It doesn’t. After fruitlessly wandering around for a while, a kindly waiter from Bella Italia took pity on us and pointed towards what looked more like the entrance to a swish gym/business centre hybrid than a restaurant, which was further compounded by the sleek black-lit lifts that you have to take to find Aqua’s two restaurants: Kyoto and Nueva.

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Then there was the dimply-lit labyrinth of black marble and plush booths that you have to navigate to get to Nueva. You know you’ve arrived when you catch a glimpse of the huge blue bull that looms through the gloom, guarding the end of the maze like some sort of mythological minotaur. The final challenge I had with Aqua Nueva was just how unutterably delightful the staff were, to the point that they were smiling at me so much I had to check to make sure that they weren’t grinning at someone far more important behind me.

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As a converted Londoner, I often treat overt displays of unbridled friendliness with suspicion, but there was something about the way the softly-spoken manager swept by to say hello while delivering glasses of fizzing cava and the way the waitress laughed her way through her favourite and most hated dishes on the menu that made this feel delightfully, enchantingly genuine. And what could make you want to love a restaurant more than a welcome like that?

I developed a reverence for traditional tapas after a lazy summer holiday with my mother, which we spent wandering around Granada, Seville, Ronda and Cordoba, ducking out of the fierce September sun and into the nearest dimly-lit bodega for little snatches of food at every opportunity. I remember eating fistfuls of salted almonds and fat green olives swimming in a slick of fruity olive oil and sipping mouth-strippingly fresh carafes of thin vino roja while we waited for fat croquettes studded with jamon and thick wedges of manchego to arrive.

Aqua Nueva’s tapas-style menu is a world away from classic fare scrawled on a chalkboard in rural España. This is a primped up, poshed up, refined version with a pin sharp aesthetic that’s served with a modernist edge and a nod to adventure. In short, exactly the things that would ordinarily send me running for the Andalusian hills, but, as much as my traditionalist self was rebelling, when the food is good, it’s hard not to fall hook line and sinker for it.

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That being said, by far my favourite thing of the evening arrived first: teeny-tiny emerald green pimientos de Padrón, lightly fried and scattered with coarse sea salt. I’m always banging on about the beauty of simple things, and these were simply beautiful (which, at £6.50 a portion, they should be).

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There was a lovely lightness of touch demonstrated again in a beetroot dish where thin slivers of purple-stained beetroot were paired with tiny morsels of fried Monte Enebro cheese and coated in a liquorice marinade that, thankfully, offered more of a fennel-scented tickle than an overly sweet liquorice allsort smack in the face. The small plate of coiled spirals of aubergine peppered with 34 different spices was perfectly pleasant, although would have been improved immeasurably if it was served warm and not limp and frigid.

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There was one dish that left me completely cold, however, Aqua Nueva’s take on that tapas stalwart, patatas bravas. Real patatas bravas should come in a golden, sizzling mass, smothered in a fiery red sauce that promises oily goodness and indigestion. The ones on this menu come bone dry, separated from their sauce by slate and a dipping pot. It was a step away from tradition in the wrong direction that reduced the generous and rustic nature of this dish into a sort of chip-esque side plate.

Luckily, by this point, a gloriously good glass of Blanco Rioja had arrived and I was distracted from my potato-induced irritation by its lavishly butter-soft floral flavour.

There are many meat and fish mains on this menu to tempt even tapas purists, from confit crispy pork with langoustines to razor clams with white asparagus and almond vinaigrette, but I was particularly impressed with the grilled Iberian Secreto pork that came in tiny, juicy little strips nestled between crispy fried potatoes and feather-light dollops of whipped, creamy aioli.

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Desserts arrived in a flight and ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. The white chocolate bavarois was delicately scented with just the right amount of rose to keep it on the right side of turkish delight instead of soap, although it could have done with just a touch less gelatin; while the decadent, almost spiced chocolate mousse was heaven on a spoon…the spongy olive oil bread that it rested on like a mutant loofah, not so much, although F was a fan of its cakey consistency and whisper of flavour.

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Then there were the vanilla tomatoes and goats cheese ice cream with baby bites of moist, salty olive cake and a smattering of confused strawberries. A dessert like this will always be divisive. Unfortunately for me, I’m of the mindset that it doesn’t matter what you do to a tomato – dip it in sugar, serve it with syrup, cover it in edible gold – I don’t want it on my pudding plate.

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The most frustrating thing was that the sharp-sweet goats cheese ice cream was perfectly balanced and would have turned something like a wedge of baklava dripping with honey into something exceptional. It was an intriguing and brave venture, but for me it was a misstep.

It all ended with a sip of fiery, dry-as-a-bone Goya sherry and another glass of that mouthwatering cava, which we drank on their expansive terrace. Standing there in my everyday jeans and shirt, I was painfully aware of the flash, lithe young things showing off fake tanned limbs in teeny-tiny playsuits, Michael Kors and Mulberry bags clanging against their jutting hipbones as they strutted around. It struck me that, in parts, Aqua‘s sprawling complex feels a little like a high class playground for twenty-something cocktail swilling city workers with money to burn, so it’s lucky that there are some excellent dishes and attentive staff there to pull it back from the edge of pretension.

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As I stood there looking out over the bleak but strangely beautiful panorama of London’s skyline under the fuggy summer dusk, half-listening to a couple of Aussies trying to chat up a group of Spanish girls, I caught myself thinking that while it wasn’t quite Seville, it was certainly something.

Originally reviewed for Foodepedia, found here.

Last of the summer wine: Bourne & Hollingsworth

28 Rathbone Place, London W1T 1JF www.bourneandhollingsworth.com/bournes/

Bourne & Hollingsworth isn’t the easiest bar to find. It’s tucked away down a side street off Oxford Street and, even then, you’ll only find the front door by stepping down from the Fitzrovia streets, leaving the balmy sunshine behind and walking into the gloom below. It’s worth it when you do, however.

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The bijoux bar itself has been described as many things – “as twee as you can get” being one and “incredibly quirky” another – what sticks, though, is the bar’s incredible ability to make you feel as though you’re settling in for a knees up in your granny’s parlour.

This place is all retro vintage accents and booze-orientated quirks, from the alchemists bar that stretches to the ceiling and heaves with intriguing bottles, potions and unguents and the hidden bathroom door with its touch of Narnia-inspired charm to the flock wallpaper that’s replicated on practically every flat surface. But the draw card here is the cocktails, and the care with which the unhurried, laid-back staff make them.

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Even the menu is charming, unfolding like origami and scrawled with bistro-chic sketches with neat little sections dedicated to the art of drinking. The cocktail list here is enticingly diverse, with plenty of gin-based options, which, as a gin fanatic, couldn’t have pleased me more.

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Standouts included the gin-rich and cucumber-heavy Gardener’s cocktail, which came in a bone china teacup complete with a single cucumber sandwich balanced on the rim of the saucer…naturally.

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Other temptations involved the new range of summer-themed drinks introduced to encapsulate the flavours of an English country garden – think a muddle of rhubarb syrup and ginger with tequila in the Rhuba Club or The Rathbone Spring Punch with raspberries, lemons and the childhood flavour of dandelion & burdock made grownup with a glug of vodka.

But, alas, I only managed to squeeze in a couple of drinks here before I bumbled off in a gin-soaked haze, so plumped for the following and wasn’t disappointed.

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The Wibble

This blackberry-spiked blend was as sharp as a cool English morning spent scratching for blackberries along the hedgerows. It finished with a sour-sweet flash of mouth-clenchingly tangy grapefruit.

The Pink Jaguar

This fuchsia concoction was the brainchild of Bourne & Hollingsworth’s Kelley Hill and, despite being the kind of shade of drink that Del Boy might order, the taste was impressively complex. A fruity mashup of club tropicana Yaguara Cachaca with rosé vermouth, raspberries and a touch of toasted spice courtesy of a home-made cinnamon & white pepper syrup. Surprisingly refreshing and warm at the same time and a real winner.

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

Baking Gluten Savvy Bread with Maria

For a long time now, gluten has beeen seen as the foodie devil incarnate, so I went along to a healthy bread class with Bake with Maria on behalf of Foodepedia to see if I could learn to be gluten savvy instead of gluten scared.

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“So, before we start, does everyone know exactly what gluten is?”

This seemingly innocuous question was asked by Maria Mayerhofer, the baking genius behind Bake with Maria, who is out to get Londoners baking and making, one beautifully executed cookery class at a time.

I stumbled up the residential steps to Maria’s Baking Lab on the edge of South Hampstead in the dark one rainy evening last week, utterly convinced I was in the wrong place until I spotted a doorway filled with light and, on closer inspection, emitting the encouraging smell of freshly baked cake.

As I walked into the teeny tiny kitchen and work space, I was immediately offered a raspberry financier and some still warm, buttered banana bread and, eyeing it suspiciously, asked if it was gluten free. A mistake, because Maria and her team don’t do gluten free, they do gluten smart, which is why I was there, to take part in a Gluten Savvy Bread Class.

Gluten, a protein composite found in wheat and grains, has had it hard these past few years. Accused of upsetting stomachs from New York to London, it’s been relegated to the unpopular food ranks alongside fat and, more recently, sugar – fat might be getting an invite back to polite dining society; the foodie jury is still out on that one. Today, gluten has almost become a dirty word, uttered by filthy bread cravers whose only socially acceptable outlet is spending £4 on an artisan sourdough loaf, which is the only sort of ‘healthy’ bread, obviously.

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I’ve heard countless people, from housemates to co workers proudly announce that they’re giving up gluten or claiming that they couldn’t possibly eat it as it makes them feel bloated as they cradle their tummies protectively. Now, real gluten allergies are no laughing matter. Coeliac disease is a terrible affliction and means sufferers can’t stand even a trace of gluten, from its presence in soy sauce to ale. Tom from Shipton Mill thinks he knows why people associate that bloated feeling with bread: it’s the quality of bread you’re eating.

At the time he said this he was encouraging me and a bunch of food writers to squeeze a bog standard sliced white loaf back into dough pellets like we all did as kids, while pointing out that these loaves, which he called ‘water standing up’, are mass produced, barely proved and full of additives and preservatives that are far more likely to cause irritation than actual gluten ever is.

Gluten free loaves didn’t get off easy either, as Tom pointed out that bread should have four ingredients (flour, water, yeast, salt) while gluten free loaves often have closer to 13, with everything from sugar to starch, stabilisers and flavourings added to the original mix to keep it tasting and feeling like, well, bread.

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And so began our gluten education, or should I say re-education at the hands of Maria and master baker Emmanuel Hadjiandreou, the author of How to Make Bread, who walked us all through the astonishingly simple process of baking fresh, delicious breads at home.

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As well as explaining how spelt (which, incidentally hasn’t really altered for the past 6,000 years) is more easily digested by the body yet still contains gluten and showing us how to roll the perfect seeded baguette, Hadjiandreou showed us how to do a gluten wash – submerging raw dough in water and squeezing it until you’re left with a stringy residue – on different types of bread dough to see just how much gluten they actually contain.

And that’s exactly what the classes at Bake with Maria aim to do: to practically show you the joy of baking and serve it alongside a side order of specialist knowledge. As an added bonus you get to eat everything you make at the end of the class, which for us meant loaves hot from the oven and dripping with butter and Maria’s homemade hummus and beetroot dip and a warm baguette to carry home on the tube, much to the olfactory envy of fellow passengers.

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As we were sent home, each clutching our baguettes and beaming with a shared sense of gluten epiphany, there wasn’t one of us that didn’t believe what Maria had been saying to us all along: that healthy, very much gluten FULL loaves are quick and easy and incredibly cheap to make at home and everyone should be doing it.

 Visit www.bakewithmaria.com to see all upcoming pastry, bread and cake classes and for more information on prices.

Original piece written for the wonderful Foodepedia.co.uk and can be read here.

Dipping in: Review of Marley Spoon

“Is this all for your lunch?” The delivery man looked at me quizzically.

“Yes”, I replied, immediately on the defensive and trying to look as haughty as I could in my dressing gown at 11am on a Tuesday before grabbing the box and retreating back to my kitchen lair.

Let’s face it, there’s nothing quite as exciting as getting a big box of food in the post and Marley Spoon knows this and has capitalised on it with a bespoke recipe kit home delivery service that’s dedicated to inspiring people to cook more adventurously.

Marley Spoon is, really, only a baby on the food scene, having been launched just last December by Fabien Siegel – the co-founder of Hungry House – and Tim Neatby, the man behind German restaurant chain MexAttax; but it’s already making a name for itself with its international menu choices and emphasis on healthy, balanced and easy to cook meals.

The diverse and ever-changing weekly menus are packed the kinds of dishes you’ve looked longingly at in Olive or Delicious magazine but never actually bother to cook for yourself. Each seven day offering reads like a whistle-stop foodie tour around the world, from Indonesian Nasi Goreng using Devonshire pork to Japanese-flavoured glazed salmon with wasabi peanut potatoes and bok choi and Jamaican-inspired jerk plantain with green salsa and coconut rice.

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I was sent the Devonshire chicken supreme with Middle Eastern rice and carrot salad and the roasted cauliflower steaks with fried tofu, wild rice and a spicy almond sauce. Each order comes weighed, half prepped (there’s still some chopping, shredding and blending required to make you feel as though you’re doing some actual cooking) and with an idiot proof, step-by-step picture recipe card. There’s even a calorie breakdown and a helpline number, just in case you have a kitchen meltdown.

The first thing that struck me was the efficiency of the packaging. Everything comes pre-measured and separated into brown paper bags, including little touches like everything that needs to be refrigerated kept together, ready to be shoved into the fridge on arrival.

The volume of plastic pots and pouches (I counted seven alone for the cauliflower dish), however did seem a little excessive; I’m not sure you need to separate spices that are intended to go into the same pot of food into individual, teaspoon-sized servings. Luckily though, all of the pots are recyclable and Marley Spoon have an in house recycling system where they invite you to return bulkier packaging like the sheep’s wool insulator packs and cooling bags.

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The cooking instructions were easy peasy and the results, shocking similar to the pictures provided and tasted impressively and moreishly delicious. Truthfully, as an advocate of cheap home cooking, I thought I might have had my knives out for Marley Spoon and was ready to denounce it as overpriced and wasteful for a single plates of food. But, after a few mouthfuls of the chargrilled cauliflower, crispy tofu and sweet, nutty, spicy sriracha sauce and after I’d eaten the ridiculously juicy chicken dish, I was practically a devotee.

The second thing that impressed me was the sheer quality of the ingredients. The vegetables looked freshly picked, dewey and dirt sprinkled and the meat was firm and perfectly butchered.

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Thirdly, it’s worth mentioning that the portions were enormous. Gargantuan even. I consider myself to be quite a little pig when it comes to food with an obligingly flexible stomach that’s willing to accommodate often disgustingly huge amounts of food. But even I was defeated by the portions here. Don’t be fooled by the delicate mounds in the promo photography – I was making leftover cold salads from the chicken accompaniment of turmeric and raisin rice and shredded carrot and halved the remaining portion of the roasted cauliflower for lunch the next day. This is, obviously, not a bad thing and proves that you’re more than able to feed a hungry family on these portions.

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Now comes the sticky issue, the price. Two portions of the Devonshire chicken and two portions of the cauliflower comes in at £11 each and there’s a minimum order quantity if four portions. While it’s less than what you’d probably pay in a restaurant for these dishes, it’s worth remembering that you wouldn’t be expected to cook it or clean up after it in a restaurant. Out of curiosity, I added all the ingredients for the chicken dish into a virtual trolley at Sainsburys and it totalled £16.04, and that was with a whole chicken and whole tubs of the spices.

IMG_4574My leftover rice, carrot and avocado salad

I do understand that the premium ingredients and free delivery hike up the price at Marley Spoon, but I can’t help but wonder who could afford to order these meals more than a few times a month. That being said, if you join Marley Spoon as a Food Club member, the prices of the dishes drops to £9.

Despite all that, if I had a dinner party with zero hours to prep, shop or even think of interesting and delicious dishes to impress with, Marley Spoon just might be my first port of call.

Originally written for the brilliant food blog, Foodepedia and can be found here.

Sun, sea and silver sardines: Malaga memories of El Cabra

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“It’s just down here. Come on, I’m hungry.”

I heard his voice but lost sight of Antonio as his black cloud of curly hair dissappeared around the white-washed wall and his voice floated just out of reach at the end of the alley.

I peered down, my eyes screwed up against the white hot glare of Malaga’s late June sunshine. I shrugged thinking, well, at least he knows where he’s going and padded down after him, pinned to the sliver of shade that dripped from squat houses, which seemed to have slumped against the heat.

As I reached the end of the alley – wondering why I had decided to lug my stupidly heavy DSLR and with the heat from the bleached, sand-worn stones burning through the soles my thin summer sandals – I glanced up and saw a sign for Pedregalejo.

When I rounded the corner, the mouth of the alley opened up and joined the curve of the Pedragalejo beachfront: a narrow strip of greyish sand littered with rainbow-coloured sun umbrellas, the rocky fingers of the manmade reefs pointing out into the bay.

As Antonio led me along the line of shoreside restaurants I read the names that were painted onto beached boats that had been transformed into smoking bbqs; Las Palmeras, Mar de Pedragalejo; La Paloma. We stopped under the awning of one half way along. I had a moment to glance back out to sea and scan the name of this particular place, just noticing a white-haired man in a cap leaning over something that was sizzling over the flames before I was nudged into a seat next to the promenade. El Cabra.

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Nearby, chubby, sweat beaded boys were kicking neon pink footballs on the scrubby grass, and, further towards the sea, I could hear the shrieks of local girls as they were thrown into the foaming, icy waves by sunburnt men with tattooed torsos; the girls’ thick swathes of hair scything the hot air like damp black velvet and showering unlucky sunbathers in tepid rainfalls as they sprinted past.

Tall african men sauntered around, some with at least four pairs of glasses on, clutching racks of knock-off Raybans, eyes scanning the restaurant fronts for tourists; bands of lime green, gold and tortoiseshell pushed up their foreheads like plastic bandanas.

“Only locals come here really. That and tourists if they have good guides.”

Antonio winked at me before waving away the menu and ordering wine for him and beer for me and explaining why this is his favourite place to eat the local speciality: skinny, silver sardines; freshly caught and chargrilled over the flames.

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As I wiped the condensation from my beer bottle, trying not to notice the huge picture of Xabi Alonso that decorated it (I visited after Spain had been knocked out of the World Cup and any attempt to talk about it was met with stony silence), the first plate of seafood arrived.

There didn’t seem to be much of a menu here and no one else seemed to speak much English, but, when the dishes started coming I realised that that was part of the charm. You got served what was fresh that day and were served it in abundance.

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Bowls of impossibly sweet little clams dripping in butter and sharp with white wine; huge, coral-coloured mussels steamed gently open and served with wedges of lemon to squeeze over their tender flesh; salads of bright scarlet peppers with tuna and raw onion soaked in olive oil and sea salt; towers of golden fried whitebait and rings of crispy calamari and, when I was protesting the arrival of more, the ‘sardinas’, their silver skin burnt ash blonde and curling away from the soft, salty meat underneath.

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As the meal was tapering off and Anotnio was trying to force a shot of limoncello down me, promising it was a Spanish lunchtime tradition, a blast of music startled me. I swung in my seat to see a middle aged man with a portable kareoke box that couldn’t have looked more out of place on a beach if he tried.

He looked so incongruous, standing there in smart black trousers, polished, pointed shoes and an embroidered shirt, unbuttoned to the bone of his sternum, wiry chest hair spilling over the top button and hair from his impressive mullet falling past his collar. Without hesitation, he launched into a rendition of Sinatra’s My Way in heavily-accented English, the tinny sound of his jukebox crackling against his surprisingly mellow voice.

Antonio laughed at my bemused expression and explained that the singing man was a regular fixture on this stretch of beach and he’d be round after his performance, asking for tips.

“We should dance.” he said suddenly, his brown eyes dark with mischief, before bursting into fits of laughter at my panicked expression.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding! You British girls are so proper, so easy to make fun…unless…do you want to?”

He was looking at me through a thick fan of black lashes across the table, still grinning as his hand stretched over, palm facing up and reaching for mine.

“No!” I screeched, wrenching my arm back as though he might burn me, blushing furiously and startling the couple eating next to us.

“No one else is dancing; I can’t dance; I’ve just eaten; I’m supposed to be on a serious press trip.”

Even as I said the last one I realised how silly it sounded. I cringed inwardly, sarcastically congratulating myself once again for succeeding in maintaining an aura of professionalism at all times.

Antonio was still making fun of me when the bill arrived.

As we walked back out into the afternoon haze I caught the eye of El Cabra’s grill master and paused, asking Antonio if I could meet him.

He shurgged and helped me down the sand-covered steps before calling out to the man in an unintelligable stream of Spanish. But the man, having clocked the heavy camera poised for a shot in my hands, cut him off, grinned and turned to grab a plate of freshly grilled sardines and posed, his eyes staring of into the middle distance.

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I still look at that picture today, there’s something about it, something that reminds me of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner or The Old Man and the Sea. It’s his eyes you see; scrunched up and burning like gimlets in the lines of his leathery face. That and the memory of the salt and the sharp lemon from the lunch.

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It’s his thousand mile stare and remembering the scratchy heat of the sand under my heels on the bay and the smell of the sea, tinged with an edge of woodsmoke and the faint tang of sweat and suncream.

That meal, that view, that picture and that memory of the silvered fish at El Cabra that afternoon has become the Malaga I remember.

El Cabra, Paseo Marítimo Pedregal 17, Playa de Pedregalejo, Malaga, Spain (+34) 952-291-595 www.restauranteelcabra.es/

I was shown around Malaga as a guest of the Malagan tourism board and Monarch Airlines. You can read all about my sunny Spanish adventuring here.