Sunday, 26 February 2012

fast food at 200mph

The other day I made a lightning visit to London on Eurostar for an urgent errand and travelled first class (or Business Premier) to get on the next available train.
The return cost was 620€ and so I was expecting something ritzy onboard.
But a glance at the menu cover suggested we would get The Waterside Inn (3 Michelin stars) rather than the mere Ritz.
Whilst it's difficult on a plane to serve decent food, on a train there are fewer constraints.
The Black Forest Gâteau was more Gregg Wallace than Alain Roux.

And as for the fish choucroute there's a good reason that in landlocked Alsace fish is not the usual accompaniment to pickled cabbage and it's not necessarily a geographic one.  And even if there was good reason to serve fish in a choucroute, I doubt here that haddock should be turned into a mousse (or soufflé).
The gâteau came with the smoked salmon starter.  I enjoyed the raw red onion.  And the Morgon wine was quite good too though horrible with the food.

On the return journey Pannier Champagne was served with Snacks of the World (nuts).  Note the wine list offering three reds but only one white and a rosé.  And note that the wines are all French.  This was not a problem for me at all but why two clarets for example, 66% of the red offering?

As on the outward leg the pudding and starter came at the same time and this time we also had a cheese course (stilton).  The weird sweet and sour Autumn Salad of apples and squash was like the dregs of a mulled wine jug.  The Parkin cake was farkin chewy.

The crackling-free pork belly was lean but not dry and didn't fight with the wine unlike the marmalade that went with it.  Steamed broccoli was part green, part grey, as if cooked in batches with different timings.

The charm of the waiting staff was in inverse proportion to the quality of food they served.   I've flown First Class twice (on Gulf Air) and the food was no better than this though perhaps more ambitious in its intention and more pretentiously described.

It was good to drink out of real glass and to eat with real metal though I could have done without the congealed broccoli on my freshly unwrapped fork.  A problem here must be the rapid turnaround of trains (I had used chewing gum in my seat pocket and my neighbour had a white skid of something across his table when he unfurled it.  I won't describe the loo).

But I shouldn't carp; catching the train between London and Paris is so much better than driving or flying.  Just try and book ahead for cheaper tickets and feast at Bar Pepito in Kings Cross or at Terminus Nord in Paris beforehand.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Chablis and Oysters

Whilst idly googling gastroporn on the net after a hard day's work copywriting I came across a video on YouTube featuring.... myself and my sister Abigail.  My Google search was "Chablis and Oysters", nothing dirty you understand, if a little fishy.  I couldn't believe I hadn't turned this into a blogpost before so feel I should now, even though it dates from Christmas Day last year.  I do now live near Chablis, which is a long way from the sea, but as you will see, if you watch the video, there is a good reason why Chablis goes so well with oysters...

Friday, 1 October 2010

Cork Alive

I served Champagne to some French friends recently and the cork, as I released it, sommelier-style and without a pop, sucked itself back into the bottle neck as if there was a vacuum inside.  When I twisted it out again it appeared very narrow which is the normal indication of bottle age.  But it had a curious lump on its end; and even more curiously, it appeared to be alive...

apologies for my laboured, heavily-accented French on the video; I think this was our second bottle of fruity, gluggable Brut from Joseph Walczak in Les Riceys

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Canteen Fish & Chips

I was invited recently to try fish and chips at Canteen in Baker Street.  As readers will know, I am a sucker for takeaway fish and chips when in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast.  But in London, since the demise of the wonderful Upper Street Fish Bar (sadly now a Nando's) and its charismatic owner Olga, fish and chips do not pass my lips.  In fact, there are very few fish and chip shops and restaurants left and those that there are often double up as kebab shops and even Chinese takeaways.   This is one of the sad legacies of overfishing.

Canteen started in Spitalfield in 2005 and is now a mini chain of four restaurants serving "Great British Food" at all times of the day.  Foreign visitors to London often ask me about restaurants serving traditional British food and I have to reply that either I never go to them so cannot recommend or the very few that exist must be so terrible that they will even exceed my foreign friends' prejudices.  So, we normally end up in the pub.

But, you don't necessarily always want to go to the pub and if you have young children, you can't anyway.  And very few pubs do breakfast.  The Canteen restaurants appear to actively encourage families and the menu includes fish finger sandwiches and Twiglets.  For slightly more grown up tastes there is the all day breakfast, devilled kidneys on toast, sausages and mash, various pies and roasts, treacle pudding and fish and chips.

Our group of bloggers were at the Baker Street branch to try out the fish and chips and to hear group executive chef and co-founder Cass Titcombe talk about his restaurants and his new book, Great British Food.  We learned that the fish used is sourced responsibly and ethically from south coast day boats and so the fish available changes from day to day.  We tried cod, pollack and plaice in breadcrumbs and in a light batter.  The batter recipes follow:
Cass explained that he prefers breaded fish as it's less greasy but his batter was certainly fairly grease free.  It lacked the beefy taste of dripping-fried batter like the one in Aldeburgh but he said he didn't want to offend non meat eaters' sensibilities; vegetable oil (he thought groundnut) is used instead.
Maris Piper potatoes are used for the medium sized chips which are blanched at 130'C and then rinsed and dried to aid crispness after the next frying stage.  The chips are then fried at 190'C for 3 minutes.  The fish is floured before being dipped in the batter (if using) which should have the consistency of thick double cream. The fish is fried at 170'C for up to 5 minutes according to the thickness of the fillet.
As a side we had traditional mushy peas except that these were not luridly wasabi paste green, more olive green and all the more appetising for it.  Cass explained that by adding bicarbonate of soda to the 12 hour soaking of the marrowfat peas these end up softer and less grey looking than they would   do otherwise.  

The tartare sauce is made in house which was a pleasant surprise; any pregnant women or Edwina Currie can reassure themselves though that the egg yolk being pasteurised is therefore listeria and salmonella free. I would have preferred more cornichon crunch to the sauce but that's my personal taste.
The (home made) breadcrumbs used for the plaice are white which helps judge the cooking time as they go brown in the hot oil.  All three fish we tried were caught the day before so were ultra fresh.  My suggestion that the fish may have a more pronounced flavour if either aged a bit longer (as with my cod experiment) or salted lightly and left to exude moisture (as they do in Greece) provoked interest but the assertion from Cass that fish does not improve with time.  I agree to differ, according to the fish: sea bass, for example is best eaten the day it's caught, in my opinion, and white fish benefit from a few days out of the sea.  Cass's favourite fish for fish and chips is haddock.
We drank a delicious Hooky Gold pale ale from Hook Norton brewery which had plenty of zesty, sharp hoppy flavour to wash away the fat and quench the thirst.

I was a guest at Canteen restaurant.  My thanks to Cass Titcombe and to Jenny Goss of Sauce Communications

Monday, 31 May 2010

Vignettes from Jerez: The (mainly) fish market

The Spanish love their fish and whilst it's obvious that big cities like Madrid and Barcelona will have great fish markets (Madrid's is second in the world to Tokyo's) I hadn't banked on a diminutive little town like landlocked Jerez having anything special.  I'd walked past the large covered market building the evening I arrived and had imagined a mixed meat, fish, fruit & veg, and olive market the next morning but not the biggest show of fish I'd ever have seen.
Dozens of mongers with their neat little shops in rows were selling a bewildering array of prawns, shrimps, squid, hake, cod's roes, whelks, langoustines, tuna, the odd John Dory and skate, and a few sharks, big and small.  The customers, mainly older women, were expertly choosing exactly the fish they wanted, sometimes getting the mongers, a mix of men and women, some fairly young, some veritable old fish wives, to pick fish from the bottom of the pile or even doing it themselves.  The mongers would then fillet and cut in the flash of an eye with a very sharp knife.
What a shame that on an island like Britain most towns do not possess one single fishmonger (let alone a proper food market) and that the supermarkets where most food is bought anyway provide a pathetically small choice of fish, most of it ready filleted or smoked or 'previously frozen'.  
The central part of the Jerez covered market is totally devoted to fish.  In the stalls around the periphery there are butchers selling a little fresh meat including the odd (wild) bunny and sausages and plenty of preserved meat (in the form of hams and more sausages).  There are greengrocers selling notably knobbly fruit and vegetables, nothing too perfectly smooth and shiny like in the UK.  The odd frutos seccos shop selling nuts and dried fruit and honey too.  And one lone baker selling crap bread, Spain being a curiously bread challenged country.  Here, the Brits might have the edge, Sunblest and Hovis notwithstanding.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Chateau Musar

Chateau Musar from Lebanon was my favourite red wine when I was a student and today, several years later, I still devote a corner in my cellar to its wines which seem to last forever.  My favourite column in Private Eye then was Auberon Waugh's weekly diary where he would rave about Musar as being the ideal, bargain basement wine for impecunious claret or Burgundy lovers (though the wines are more Rhône-like than either, if one must compare).

The property is at 1000 metres high up in the Bekaa valley near Beirut and wine has been made here by the Hochar family since the 1930s (though wine was made here hundreds of years BC by the Phoenicians).  The red wine for which the estate is famous is from a blend of Cinsault, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon and yet, even if these grape varieties are familiar to many wine drinkers, the resultant wine is so distinctive as to make it one of the world's easiest to spot in a blind tasting.

One distinguishing characteristic of the wine is the prominent amount of volatile acidity (or VA) which is caused by acetic bacteria when fermenting or recently fermented wine is exposed to air. If left unchecked, the wine turns to vinegar.   VA which is not excessive gives wine extra fragrance and a slight sweet and sour character which is very appealing (think of your best balsamic vinegar).  In most properties in the rest of the world grapes and wine receive doses of sulphur to protect them from the air to keep VA to a minimum but at Musar VA is encouraged and helps make the wines unique.  

Other taste characteristics of the wine include a distinct gaminess, especially as the wine develops in older vintages, and a strawberry fruit which varies from tinned to fresh and wild!  The wines never have much tannin (they are never released before 7 years) and yet seem to age very well without changing that much in character.  Where most age-worthy reds continue to improve with age and then decline gradually, Musar is ready to drink when it's released and then appears to stay on a plateau for years and even decades.  It goes well with roast game birds, the relatively lighter vintages with pheasant and partridge, the bigger, older ones with grouse.  

Doubting Thomases who say that VA can destroy a wine have not tasted Musar vintages going back several decades which still taste vibrant.  Indeed, Spain's most revered, age worthy wine Vega Sicilia (I have enjoyed the 1962) also has copious amounts of VA in its mix as does arguably the twentieth century's most highly regarded claret, château Cheval Blanc 1947, still drinking well now (so I hear).

When the Musar 1995 was released a lot of tasters apparently condemned the wine because of its very high levels of VA; that vintage is now regarded as the best of the 1990s (it has a VA level of 0.8g/l, 1.2g/l being the maximum desired).

The 1984 vintage took 5 days to reach the winery because the vineyard was in a battle zone and so the grapes started fermenting in the back of the truck.  The resultant wine, which has not been released, had a VA level of 1.2g/l but according to the family is now eminently drinkable.  Indeed, Serge Hochar claims it is the 40 mile journey from vineyard to winery by truck that 'inoculates' the wines against oxidation giving them great longevity and helps create the Musar style.   

At a tasting last week at the London International Wine Fair we tried the 2003, 1997, 1980 and 1977.  All were good (though the 1977 was suffering a bit on the nose probably because of a faulty cork), the younger wines intensely, sweetly strawberryish and fragrantly 'volatile', the older wines more leathery and tarry but still spicily fruity.

The 'second' wine which is called Hochar Père et Fils was also on show from the 2003 vintage; it spends less time in barrel and is fruitier (with an added dash of Grenache) though still has that characteristic twang of VA.  The reds were mainly served from decanters as they are not filtered or fined before bottling and form quite a sediment.
Some members of the Hochar family were present at the tasting including the founder's sons, Serge (who was Decanter Magazine's first "Man of the Year" in 1984) and Ronald (named after the late Ronald Barton, a family friend, of châteaux Léoville & Langoa fame, who convinced the founder to take his wines seriously);  their respective sons were there too,  Gaston (named after his grandfather who founded the winery) and Ralph.

They switched from good English when addressing the audience (with much self-deprecating banter from Ronald) to perfect French when talking amongst themselves (reminding us of Lebanon's relatively recent colonial French heritage). When challenged about VA Ronald asked, rhetorically, what would Musar be without volatile acidity... and how would it age (or not).  

The red wine style is resolutely old fashioned and old world.  French oak is used to age the wine but the château wine never stays longer than a year in barrels, few of which are new.  The Hochar Père et Fils spends 6 to 9 months in oak as do the whites; we tried the 2003 and 1990 which were big and bold, in a slightly oxidised style reminiscent of old style white Rhône or mature dry white Graves though with perhaps less acidity.  In fact, my first thought on smelling the 2003 was of Ygrec, the dry white Bordeaux from château d'Yquem.

The whites are made from Obaideh and Merwah grapes which are indigenous to Lebanon and allegedly the origins of Chardonnay and Semillon.  The lack of acidity and quirky flavours don't lend themselves to any obvious food pairings though I wouldn't say no to a rich lobster or crab dish... and would drink the house Arak spirit with the traditional Lebanese meze!

my thanks to Richard Hunt of Chateau Musar (UK) Ltd. for squeezing me in to this heavily oversubscribed tasting, full of loyal Musar customers, or "friends", as the Hochar family prefer to call them.  For those who just don't get the eccentric, unique wine styles of the estate there is a new range of unoaked, more modern wines for immediate consumption called Musar Jeune in white, rosé and red. They are not so modern however that they have screwcaps (perhaps in 50 years time quipped Ronald) or upfront, zesty, juicy fruit: they remain quite savoury.  

One unanswered question for me is why the label eschews the circumflex (â) on château.... just in case any of you wanted to correct my spelling above!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Brandade de Morue (Salt Cod Mash)

Before refrigeration was invented fish would go off really quickly.  Those lucky enough to live on the coast could eat that day's catch.  Those inland had to eat meat and two veg.  And then one day salt (conveniently from the sea) was found to preserve fish.  Not only that, it preserved fish and allowed it to develop its flavour.  Salt cod (morue in French) was born, would last for ever and could be exported inland and overseas.
Salting food extracts the moisture which in combination with bacteria leads to spoilage.  So salted food, in this case cod, needs rehydrating to soften it, reduce the salt content and make it edible.  
The drier and saltier the cod the more soaking it needs.  I soaked my piece here (bought from Garcia) for 18 hours and changed the water 4 or 5 times.  Salt cod in London can be found wherever there are Spaniards, Portuguese or West Indians living in any number.  So, the northern end of Notting Hill is good as is Brixton.  Otherwise, it's difficult to find.  The French adore it and every fishmonger in France worth his salt will have it on sale.  It's a gift to mongers because it's practically the only fish that won't go off.  In Portugal they even have shops that won't sell anything else.  And in the Caribbean the daily white rum aperitif is usually accompanied by salt cod fritters (ti punch & accras de morue on the French islands).
The Portuguese have hundreds of recipes for bacalhau (bacalao in Spanish) but the French just have the one,  brandade de morue.  Brandade comes from an old verb "to beat" and once the rehydrated fish has been poached for a few minutes in milk and or olive oil it is skinned, deboned and beaten into an emulsion, often with added potato.  
It's not a dish for those who like mild flavours.  As the fish has been aged it has quite a strong flavour  in  a similar way that meat goes high when it has been hung.  When I poach the fish I add whole garlic cloves and pepper.  I use the poaching liquor to mash the boiled potatoes.  The fish is much easier to skin and debone when it's still warm; if you do this when it has cooled down it really sticks to your fingers (after all, the first glues were made from boiled fish).  A sprinkling of parsley at the end is all it needs though this is my embellishment; brandade in even the smartest Parisian brasseries usually comes in an earthenware crock and looks like, well, mash.
As brandade is quite strong it's a challenge to match with wine.  Here, we started off with my favourite foodie beer (Meantime India Pale Ale) which copes with any strong food that is thrown at it (the style was invented for curry).  And as brandade is salty it's good to have something thirst quenching.  We continued with old fashioned white Rioja (Marqués de Murrieta Gran Reserva 1998), aged for 32 months in cask and with the guts and acidity to cope.  I had leftovers the next day with another old fashioned Rioja, but this time a Tondonia rosado 1997 from López de Heredia, aged 4 years in barrel.  It's not often one comes across a 13 year old rosé wine that is still drinkable but again lengthy barrel ageing makes these wines pretty indestructible and gives them an almost sherryish, big oxidised flavour that allows them to cope with extremes of salt, savouriness and spice.  
I sometimes make brandade without potato and spread it on bruschetta.  In this case, I would probably serve a Fino Sherry or Manzanilla Pasada.