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.  

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Roast Mutton & Flageolet Beans

On Easter Sunday we thought we'd vary the usual lamb dish and go for mutton.  We'd spotted some the day before at the excellent Snape Maltings Farmers' Market.  Mutton is basically older lamb, ie sheep, and so has more flavour though is less tender.  It is technically at least 2 years old, lamb being under 1 and hogget in between the two.  The advice from the farmer was to roast it at a lower temperature and a little longer than for lamb.  
The cut we bought was from the top of the leg.  I put it in a roasting pan and laid some anchovy fillets underneath and used the olive oil from the jar to smear over the meat.  I poured a bottle of red wine into the bottom of the pan and roasted the joint in a fan assisted oven for a couple of hours at about 150'C.  

After allowing the joint to rest with the oven switched off the meat turned out to be really succulent and tasty without being too high and sheepy.  I boiled down the remaining wine in the pan to make a thin sauce having added some thyme and rosemary from the garden.  The anchovies added some umami body and richness to this sauce but absolutely no hint of fishiness.  I served the mutton with flageolet beans, the traditional accompaniment to lamb in France.  Mashed potatoes would have been more British I guess.  And capers too.

As I wasn't sure how sheepy the mutton was going to be I'd prepared two different wines, one stronger and gamier than the other.  

In the end we had the Rioja Imperial Reserva, rather than the Lebanese chateau Musar, which is my usual wild game wine; it was perfect, its tannins and acidity cutting through the richness and its marked oaky flavour echoing the herbs (and perhaps fancifully, the bottle of Rioja that went into the sauce).  It was more than a match for the mutton.   Young lamb is the traditional accompaniment to ancient old Rioja in northern Spain (and to claret, especially Pauillac, in Aquitaine).  Whilst young lamb is an excellent foil for these wines, allowing them to show at their best, I think that a vigorous, younger wine like this 2001 is best partnered with the stronger taste of mutton.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Blind Beer Tasting

I spent most of last week helping judge wines for the International Wine Challenge and by the end felt just a tad wined out.  Tasting wine all day sounds like some people's dream pastime or job.  But the main part of a wine taster's remit is to separate the wheat from the chaff and necessarily involves tasting young, often unattractively undeveloped wine and assess their future development.  This means having to taste a lot of acidic whites and tannic reds and eventually even the most seasoned palate gives up and wants a break, or a beer... and food, which in the end, is the point of most wine.  
So, thoughts turned to beer and food which reminded me of this fun blind beer tasting I did with friends in France.  Fittingly, the host was my old boss from Quality Control days at a UK wine shipper and he too likes to take a break from wine and sink some beer.  And besides, being in rural France meant that we couldn't just pop into a local supermarket and expect to find any decent wine to drink anyway.  Tim's wife Andrea acted as barmaid, invigilator (no peeking at the labels!) and black pudding fryer and we got stuck in.
As in professional wine tastings we tasted the beers blind to avoid any potential bias.  One of the labels had claimed to be la bière la plus forte du monde and this might have made it a favourite, or least favourite, depending on one's predilection for alcohol.  And one bottle (the Faro) was so pretty it reminded me a bit of Perrier Jouët's expensive handpainted Belle Epoque vintage Champagne bottles.  The elaborate packaging of Faro ended up being very much style over substance.
After deliberating, cogitating and digesting we couldn't choose a winner though some beers were more appetising than others and some were more for sipping on their own and others were good with food.  Interestingly, when the boudin noir had been devoured we turned to panettone and chocolate cake which provided good matches for some of the stronger, sweeter styles.

No. 1 The first turned out to be Chimay Brune (red label, 7% alc) which had a frothy head and brown colour, a fine mousse, was savoury but lacking a little in acidity.  It gave off whiffs of sweetcorn. 

No. 2 Faro Lambic (4.2%) had no head, a pale brown colour, a sweet, cidery, almost vinegary character and lacked body after the Chimay.  This had the character of Gueuze from Brussels which is made "spontaneously" from wild yeasts.  An acquired taste.

No. 3 Pauwels Kwak (8.4%).  This had a more savoury, malty character and a distinct whiff of Fairy Liquid.   On returning to this beer it lacked complexity and ended up being too sweet.  However, with the chocolate cake it became much more interesting and was redolent of almond essence.

No. 4 Leffe (9%) had an attractive caramel, burnt toffee, plummy nose and palate with hints of fortified wine (Banyuls) and Christmas cake.  Indeed, this beer later on made a good accompaniment to Panettone.  The high alcohol gave the beer body without making it unbalanced.

No. 5 Bush (12%) had a similarly sweet character,  and hints of licorice.  In spite of its wine like alcoholic strength it tasted relatively balanced.

No. 6 Duvel (8.5%) had a frothy head and a pale yellow colour, a fine mousse and the least sweet, most savoury character of the whole line up.  I actually spotted this as Duvel which is a bit of a one-off style of beer.  It sometimes reminds me of saucisson à l'ail (garlic sausage, if that isn't too fanciful).

No. 7 Chimay Triple (8%, yellow label) had a very solid froth and a cloudy, orangey colour.  It had an orange zesty nose, dryish palate with a slight sweet and sour tang on the finish.  

No. 8 Leffe Blonde (6.6%) had little head, oxidised fruit on the nose and palate and was almost grapey.  It developed an overripe lychee character in the glass.  It proved a hit afterwards with some Thornton's chocolate cake. 

No. 9 Chimay (9%, blue label) had a solid head and brown colour.  It had very little scent or flavour and tasted alcoholic.  This beer was dull and clumsy.

No. 10 Belzebuth (13%) had no head and a golden brown colour.  It initially smelled maltily English ale-like but as it warmed up became peachily interesting.  The 13% alcohol was pretty evident though and underlined the beer's excessive sweetness.
With the body, sweetness and bite of some of these beers it would have been interesting to experiment with some cheeses to accompany them (indeed, the Trappist monks at Chimay make cheese by the same name).  But the success of the two cakes was a pleasant surprise.  The beers were all served at the same temperature (initially an overly cold 2'C) and became progressively more interesting as they warmed up a bit.  However, it would be sensible to heed the label's serving temperature recommendation for each beer as they all have their own character.  For example, for the heavy Chimay Brune it is suggested that 10-12'C is a good temperature (therefore that of an ideal cellar) whereas for the lighter, sour Faro Lambic, 5'C is suggested ('fridge temperature).  Most quality Belgian beers also have their dedicated glasses and these should bring out the best in the beers' sometimes complex aromas.
Finally, these beers are refermented in the bottle (just like Perrier Jouët Belle Epoque Champagne) and so have a very fine, natural bubble.  This makes them refreshing, even at high alcohol levels, but they are not overtly gassy like ordinary canned or bottled beers which have been carbonated.  The expression to look out for on a (francophone) label is haute fermentation meaning 'top fermented' (basse fermentation or, rather inelegantly, 'bottom fermented' suggests a lager type beer) and something along the lines of refermentée en bouteille.  Unlike in Champagnes however, the spent yeasts after this secondary, in-bottle fermentation are not removed from the beers which is why many of them possess a (harmless) sediment.  I usually keep these beers standing and use the sediment in cooking.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Cod & Sauce Verte

One of the joys of living on the coast is being able to buy freshly caught fish.  At Aldeburgh in Suffolk the few fishermen who still exist possess little shacks on the beach where they sell what they have caught that morning.  

Some of them supplement their catch with fish landed at Lowestoft further up the coast but one in particular (Dean Fryer) only sells fish that he has caught from his tiny boat that same morning.  Any unsold fish at the end of the morning gets sold off to the nearby restaurants and hotels.  

At this time of year cod is the main catch and the fishermen will tell you that stocks in the North Sea are plentiful.  And as they are catching fish using lines and tiny nets their little industry is sustainable (though not terribly lucrative and certainly a tough one to work in).

The downside of buying cod caught that same morning is that it's too fresh to eat the same day.  It has little flavour and is quite watery textured.  It's firmer and more flavoursome a couple of days later.  Ironically, it's very firm to the touch when spanking fresh but on cooking goes floppy.  Oily or semi oily fish like herring and sea bass are best however eaten the day they are caught.  

The best thing to do with a whole cod is to poach it, preferably in cod stock, and serve it cold with garlic mayonnaise or herby green sauce.  In the south of France a whole fish will be laid out in the middle of the table surrounded by various cold vegetables and crudités, small bowls of garlic mayonnaise (aïoli) for dipping and halved boiled eggs.  Snails will be sprinkled over the fish and jugs of rosé wine will ensure no one goes thirsty.  The dish is called Le Grand Aïoli.  Occasionally, poached salt cod (morue) will be used instead.

Making fish stock is really easy if, like here, you have access to fish bones and heads.  Oily fish is not suitable but any white fish will do.  Turbot and Dover Sole are supposed to make the best, but cod is good too.  Poaching fish in fish stock gives the fish more depth of flavour.  And afterwards, you can reduce this stock and make a soup or a tasty risotto.  

To poach a cod you need a kettle like the one pictured here.  

Simply cover the fish with cold stock, bring back to the boil, remove from the heat, and allow to cool down in the stock.  

This is the perfect recipe for those nervous about over cooking fish.  

Cod cooked like this is delicious served with a sauce verte (green sauce or salsa verde) made from herbs, capers, garlic and anchovies.  The umami-rich anchovies help the cod taste more like cod.  Green lentils from Le Puy make a good, earthy foil. 

And to drink, something dry, crisp, fresh and mineral like the unoaked Chablis above, or Muscadet, Sancerre, rosé de Provence... For those less francophile, there are some very good vinho verde being made now in northern Portugal, or there is Rias Baixas from across the border in Spain.  From Italy, Soave would be good.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Fish and Chips

It was the 150th birthday of fish and chips the other day and I was in Aldeburgh on the North Sea coast and decided to mark the occasion with the bag of "rock 'n' chips" shown above.    As an insititution, fish and chips was voted in a recent poll as Britain's most loved (knocking the Queen into second place).

Britain's first fish and chip shop opened in London in 1860.  It is not clear exactly how and when the battered fish first met the deep fried potato but historians interested in that sort of thing often cite Jews in the east end of London selling (cold) fried fish in the street as a precursor.  There was also a tradition of potatoes as street food but these were baked and not fried.
Manchester and Leeds make claims for inventing fish and chips as we know it today and indeed fish and chips is arguably more popular up north than down south.  Many Scots would claim fish and chips as the Scottish national dish, rivalling haggis (though in Scotland you ask for a "fish supper" when ordering fish and chips, and haddock is more common than cod).  

In spite of concerns over dwindling fish stocks and the consequent escalating price of fish,  there are still over 10,000 shops in Britain selling affordable, takeaway meals to people from all walks of life.  My lunch cost just under a fiver and included the fluorescent green mushy peas, the scarlet ketchup, copious amounts of salt (which helps the fish batter stay crisp though the chips remain resolutely soft) and lashings of malt vinegar.  

Deep frying fish makes eminent sense as the batter protects the flesh from overcooking and drying out.  My rock eel was really juicy as was Abi's piece of haddock.  Some people leave the batter but we couldn't resist the salty, fatty crunch contrasting with the moist fish flesh within and the unmistakeable taste of beef fat.

To drink, something sharp and fizzy is good to cut through all that stodge: I think a traditional India Pale Ale is good (there is an excellent one made at the nearby Grain Brewery) or sparkling wine, if not  actually Champagne.  Crisp, zesty Sauvignon Blanc would work too (from the Loire Valley or South Africa).  And if eating fish and chips in the south of Spain (at the Codfather in Nerja perhaps) a dry Sherry or Montilla would be perfect.

For more history (and flavour!) of fish and chips, listen here to a recent Radio 4 interview with The Guardian Food Editor Matthew Fort and the food historian Laura Mason.

A reinterpretation of Port & Stilton: Grappa & Stichelton

I recently had a yearning for something sweet and savoury after a lazy Sunday graze on something unsatisfactory and raided the cupboards and 'fridge to assemble the above feast: pickled walnuts (a first for me), buttery langue de chat biscuits, blue Stichelton cheese, and fiery grappa made from Nebbiolo grapes in Piedmont and aged and rounded out in old port casks.  

Port and Stilton is a well known and successful wine and cheese match and is often accompanied by sweet digestive biscuits, and occasionally chutney.  Here, the grappa provided the strong, sweet, fruity taste of port to match the salty blue cheese (a superior, unpasteurized version of Stilton), the pickled walnuts contributed to this, rather like a chutney would, and the langue de chat biscuits soaked up some of the fire, salt and sharp fruit of the mix and added their own buttery richness.  

The combination was so successfully balanced I devoured the whole lot.

Food and wine matches are not set in stone but some of the established ones are worth trying even if it means reinterpreting them with the ingredients at hand.  

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Warm Chicken Liver Salad

I don't know why people buy "ready meals" from supermarkets.  They are expensive, unhealthily full of fat, sugar,  salt, preservatives and unmentionable e numbers and in my (limited) experience taste pretty awful.  There are alternatives to ready meals though, even if time and talent and cooking utensils are in short supply.  The above salad is a good example and took less time and effort than a so-called ready meal.
The free-range chicken livers I picked up from the farm shop would have served at least four as a starter and yet only cost £2.40 (from Sutton Hoo Chickens, a leading poultry farmer in Suffolk).  And if you wanted to serve them to guests at a party but felt £2.40 and five minutes prep was a bit mean you could always elevate and ennoble your salad by calling it salade tiède de foies de volailles.  The livers can be floured before frying if you want, and the pan deglazed with good quality vinegar (Sherry, say) instead of the red wine used here.

An appropriate vinous accompaniment could be a young, rustic red with a  bit of bite and drunk coolish like Corbières, Beaujolais, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Chinon...

From a health perspective, free-range liver is good for you, lettuce is good for you, and garlic is good for you.  I was in control of the naughty stuff like salt and fat which is a lot healthier than leaving it to the manufacturers of ready meals.