Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Moules Marinières & Muscadet

A rule of thumb I have when looking at a fishmonger's slab is, if the fish look a bit sad and dull and not very fresh, I go for the mussels; at least you know that they're alive and therefore fresh (unless they're dead of course).  In the picture above I am reacting to the fish man's question on how many kilos I want; I never know what to say but am showing him the rough quantity I want using my hands.  I think this equated to 2 kg, so good for 2 people (and at only £6, a cheap treat).
Mussels are widely grown all around the Kingdom's coasts and yet I don't think we eat enough of them.  Perhaps if they weren't such good value we might not take them for granted and could treat them with a little more reverence.  These came from Brancaster in Norfolk.
A drop of cream is always good to add to moules marinières if you have any but it is optional.  On the recent Master Chef competition on television the judge John Torode marked down the contestants who had added cream and said "it's just wrong!"  Well, his French pronunciation is not only "just wrong", it's downright painful to hear.  But, we'll let him off if he allows us to occasionally add cream to "moolz".

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Baked Black Bream or Besugo al Horno

This beautiful fish which I spotted yesterday at The Chelsea Fishmonger and couldn't resist, is a wild Black Bream.  It looks like one of my favourite fish, a large Gilt Head, but as this one was wild and the Gilt Heads on display were farmed I thought I'd go mad and go for wild and black.
Mat the fishmonger helpfully provided me with a printed out menu supplied by Paul, one of his regular food-obsessed customers.
Apparently bream in the oven or, Besugo al Horno, is a traditional Christmas dish in Spain but takes about an hour altogether rather than the half day needed for a turkey.  Potatoes are thinly sliced along with red onions and are then layered up in a greased dish.  A paste is made of garlic, saffron, parsley and salt mixed with olive oil and water and this is poured over the potato and onion base.  This is baked for 40 minutes and then the gutted, scaled, and slashed fish is placed on top for a further 20 minutes.
I varied Paul's recipe slightly by adding a few black olives I had lurking.  Before serving, sprinkle with more chopped parsley and grated lemon zest.  I turned the grill on inside the oven shortly before the end of cooking to crisp the skin up a bit.  The fish was perfectly cooked (you can test for doneness if you wiggle the side fin near the head; if it won't come out, the fish isn't quite done) and the potato slices were smoothly waxy and redolent of saffron (I used Marfona baking potatoes, Paul recommends King Edwards).  We drank a Vermentino from the south of France (more usually called Rolle there) but a rosé from the same region would have been good too.  

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Pizza Tuesday at Franco Manca

Pizza is not my favourite food.  I'll eat it when there's nothing else, or when the alternative is some high street junk, but I generally find it stodgy and indigestible and cannot ignore the fact that the gross profit on your average pizza is pretty, well, gross.

In the bloggosphere there has been much twittering about the merits of the Franco Manca pizzeria in Brixton Market and the fact they make authentic Neapolitan pizzas with a sourdough crust.  I have walked past many times but been put off in spite of the eulogies by the fact it's in a drafty old shopping arcade.  But when Franco Manca opened a second (indoor) branch in Chiswick  I thought  I'd give them a try on a day I had an empty fridge and a rumbly tummy.
It was a very quiet midweek lunch and the muzak had been cranked up to compensate.  My pizza was  both chewy and soggy at the same time.  There was some excellent chorizo on top (from Brindisa) but otherwise I wasn't impressed.  I mentioned my disappointment on Twitter which immediately unleashed a torrent of indignant tweets from FM's myriad fans.  I thought I must be missing the point and wanted to believe the hype so when the food writer Daniel Young organised one of his regular Pizza Tuesday events at Franco Manca Chiswick I had to give it another try.
Coming here in the evening the place was bustling.  After eating some agreeable antipasti including aromatic Italian sausage (with fennel?) and braised scarole with capers (both of which a welcome antidote to the very rustic red wine) we watched the fast moving pizzaioli in action and were in sheer wonderment at the speed at which the pizzas were cooked (in seconds rather than minutes though the training the pizzaioli receive lasts six months).

A feature of the FM pizza is the thin sourdough base (slow rising to develop flavour) which is baked in 40 seconds in the extremely hot brick oven, built on site.  The owner Giuseppe Mascoli explained that the starter for the dough came from eighteenth century Ischia and was fed every day with flour and water.  He proceeded to show us how to roll up a slice of pizza before devouring it; we all had a go at this with varying success.  It was a reminder though that pizza in Italy, or in Naples at least, is very much street food, and is not really to be eaten with a knife and fork.

The oven heats to 500˙C which explains perhaps why my original pizza on an early lunch was a bit floppy if cooked in an oven that hadn't quite reached the correct temperature. Another feature of the oven other than this extreme temperature is its low roof which helps maintain a humid atmosphere thereby helping prevent scorching.  It's important that the base is well covered by the topping otherwise the fierce bottom heat of the oven coupled with the wild yeast activity in the sourdough base would create huge blisters: this is why the edge of the pizzas here are so puffy (handy too if the sauce is very runny).
There is a laudable list of ingredients and suppliers mentioned on the menu and so one imagines the margins here are not as gross as in most pizzerias.  It's a shame though that the one red wine available is not chosen with the same care even if it does have the buzzword description, 'organic' (pretty meaningless in wine from a taste point of view).
We tried four different pizzas, one of which was an off piste quattro formaggi which was very popular.  As the four cheeses are from Neal's Yard I suspect that if listed permanently it will have to cost considerably more than the current modest price range of £4.50 to £6.80.
my thanks to Daniel Young for allowing me to use the 2nd and 3rd video on this post.  The pizza tuesday evenings cost £25

Saturday, 20 March 2010

La Cucina Caldesi

I was invited to try my hand at boning a chicken and cooking it Italian style at the cookery school which is Kitchen Caldesi (La Cucina Caldesi)  in Marylebone.  Any feelings of nervousness our group of food bloggers may have felt at the prospect of cutting out the carcass without cutting off the wings (or indeed our own fingers) were dispelled when we had to  don aprons which looked like a cross between Brabantia bin liners and elephant condoms.  Further hilarity ensued when the ebullient host, Giancarlo, having plied us with Prosecco and then demonstrated the cuts to make, reprimanded latecomers with a dry wit and quite a good line in political incorrectness.  The ice was broken.

Giancarlo made boning a whole baby chicken (or poussin) look easy and indeed, with practice, one could dispatch one in about two minutes especially as we were thankfully not boning out the wings too.  We proceeded to stuff our chickens with roughly chopped garlic, rosemary and chilli peppers, salt, pepper and olive oil before rolling the birds back up again.  The curious name of the dish, Poussin under a Brick, (polletto al mattone) derives from the tradition of flattening the bird with a brick and leaving it to marinate.  I imagine this aids carving when the bird has been roasted and stops it falling apart.  We were to eat this later with rocket  and potatoes roasted with pancetta.
Meanwhile, Katie was preparing gnocchi nudi or spinach, sage and pine nut gnocchi without pasta or potato (hence 'nude').  The cooked spinach was drained and then mixed with ricotta, egg and parmesan, salt, pepper and nutmeg and a little flour and then formed into quenelle shapes between two spoons.  
The gnocchi were then gently poached in simmering water.  Just before serving they were tossed in butter, sage and parmesan.  They proved to be extremely light and digestible compared with more traditional gnocchi dumplings.
The final dish was cioccolata in tazza, a superb molten chocolate pudding containing 70% cocoa content chocolate, double cream, eggs, sugar and milk which one could drink straight from the cup it was served in.  It can be further improved by the addition of brandy or grappa. 

The evening was hugely enjoyable not least because of the banter between the host and the 'students'.  We all sat down together to eat the food that we'd helped prepare and were served wine by the school's staff.

Various courses are available, daytime and evening, and prices start at £45.   They often have guest tutors like Valentina Harris and Ursula Ferrigno both of whom I have seen in action elsewhere and who both have a similarly entertaining and no nonsense approach to Italian food.  The Caldesis own the restaurant next door, Caffè Caldesi.  Katie showed us her impressive new book which is the result of three intensive years studying the cooking of Italy's 20 regions.  

Friday, 19 March 2010

Jack Spratt's Pigeon Salad

One of the current food issues which excites a lot of debate is lean meat versus fatty meat.  People watching their weight and cholesterol levels will choose the former and those who prize taste and succulence above all will tend to choose the latter.  For it is often fat that has more flavour than flesh and it is the fat in a marbled piece of beef for instance that will provide juiciness.  
However, there is a third type of meat which is lean AND tasty, AND succulent if cooked correctly, and that meat is game.  We don't eat enough game in this country and yet game is plentiful, if often seasonal, and usually cheap.  
Wood Pigeons are one of England's most common game birds.  The breasts are often sold separately, like chickens', the rest of the bird being quite bony but handy for making stock.  Because they are lean the breasts should be served pink to retain moisture: cooked well done they are dry and tough.  They have a moderately strong, sometimes slightly livery taste, and I love them. It takes about 2 minutes, if that, to cook them in a hot frying pan. Do them in the oven and it's all too easy to overcook.
This warm pigeon salad took about five minutes to prepare.  For wine, a slightly rustic Pinot Noir would go well, nothing too fancy.  And you can have an extra glass smug in the knowledge that you've barely consumed any saturated fat.  Even Jack Spratt's wife might have been impressed.

the pigeon breasts were bought at the Friday Street Farm Shop and came from The Wild Meat Company (recommended by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall), the Merlot vinegar was bought at Emmett's (a Rick Stein Food Hero), and the salad leaves were bought at the Aldeburgh Market Shop, all excellent sources of delicious, mainly local food

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

High Flying Wines: Enotria Annual Tasting at Millbank Tower 29th Floor

Wines drunk at high altitudes tend to be a little mute and not show their best.  For this reason, buyers acting for the airlines tend to select big and bold wines rather than shrinking violets.  And even Champagne in the air doesn't taste that great, does it?  Even if it's "free".  I bet Dom Pérignon tasted of nothing at all on Concorde.  

Well, at Enotria's annual tasting in London I wasn't quite airborne but at 29 floors high in Millbank Tower I was certainly feeling a little giddy even before I had accidently swallowed any of the hundreds of wines available (and been subjected to a grappa masterclass: see below).  And it was the bolder bigger wines that stood out (though this is a common problem in eclectic wine tastings even at sea level and especially when the wines are served blind).
Enotria are one of the leading wine wholesalers so you are more likely to see their wines on a restaurant list than on the shelves of your local offie or supermarket.  They made a name for themselves years ago with Italian wine but now have a portfolio ranging from Argentina to New Zealand via Israel, Spain, and England amongst others.
However, it is Italy which still seems to be the focus and fittingly one of the few producer workshops was hosted by the outstanding Valpolicella grower Bertani.  We tasted three Amarone made from air-dried grapes from 2001, 1981 and 1967 which in spite of their age were still vibrantly powerful.  The 2001 was all chocolate and marmite on the nose, the palate sweet fruit and light tannins.  The 1981 was redolent of mushrooms, mahogany, and bonfires and the palate again had very sweet fruit.  The 1967 was spicier with medicinal hints of licorice on the nose and a lot of tarry fruit on the palate.  These wines were a revelation.  The drying and concentrating of the grapes on straw mats and the long ageing in wooden vats renders the wines almost indestructible though they do not have any of the chewy bitterness one often finds in similarly aged and ageworthy red wines.  The 15% alcohol levels probably help too.
Another trio of big, bold yet refined wines came from the Henschke family winery in Eden Valley, South Australia and were presented by the 6th generation winemaker, Johann.  We tasted Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon from 2004, 2002 and 1994.  I was struck by the opulence and refinement of these wines which tasted like claret with a few days extra ripening of the grapes but with none of the astringent tannins which go hand in hand with Cabernet wines from cooler climes.  They do cost about £50 a bottle though.  Other wines from the Henschke stable I tasted included various reds the most notable of which was the Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2005 which had power yet refinement and a long finish (£40.17).  More reasonably priced were Henry's Seven SGV 2006 mainly Shiraz (with Grenache, Mourvèdre & Viognier, £15.17) and Keyneton Estate Euphonium 2004 (Shiraz, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc & Merlot, £18.99).
To Portugal next and Quinta do Crasto in the Douro Valley.  We tasted single vineyard Vinha Maria Teresa 2003, 2005 & 2007, by far the best Portuguese reds I have ever tasted.  They are made from up to 30 different grape varieties which are trodden by foot in the traditional way, fermented and then stored in mainly French oak barriques.

All three were incredibly concentrated, ripe, smooth and rich, like a vintage port almost but without the high alcohol (though at 14.3% to 15.4% alc not that far off).  It was a pleasure to taste wines evidently destined for long life and yet so attractive to drink young.  Miguel Roquette, the owner's son, was especially proud of the 2005 which had earned 96 points from Robert Parker, and pointed out that like vintage port the wines could be enjoyed young and then would enter a dormant phase before blossoming at a much later date.

This is maybe just a little fanciful as Vinha Maria Teresa has only been produced since 1998.  Anyhow, these wines are produced in tiny quantities and are difficult to find though Enotria can supply the 2007 at £46.33.

But the Quinta is fairly large and quality and quantity is available at £7.27 with the fruity Douro Red 2008, and £14.27 for the spicy, clovey, more savoury Douro Reserva 2007.  The Douro valley being more famous for port there was an excellent LBV 2005 on show (£11.07) alongside a vintage 2005 (£24.09).  The English, port's traditional export market, tend to drink vintage port decades old but this 2005 was deliciously fruity now and didn't even need decanting as too young to have thrown a crust.  

Other notable wines of the day included an outstanding 1996 vintage Champagne from Henriot, not expensive at £47.58 and far more than twice as good as the £26.36 N.V. Brut Souverain.  1996 seems to be a vintage for Champagnes that will last for ever.  There was a very perfumed, bone dry, crisp 2004 Riesling cuvée Frédéric Emile from Trimbach (£26.52) which will go on and on and some very youthful, lean, lemony 2007 Meursault from François Mikulski (a village at £29.79 and three 1er cru around £46), again to keep.  
I enjoyed a zesty, mineral, smoky Sancerre Blanc 2009 from Domaine des Vieux Pruniers (£10.28) and  a concentrated, plummy, herby Cairanne 2007 from Domaine Brusset.  From the same domain and from this same outstanding vintage a massive Gigondas les Hauts de Montmirail 2007 which could be kept or enjoyed now with a rich beef daube.  These big and hefty, ambitious Côtes du Rhône wines slightly put the following trio of Châteauneuf du Pape in the shade but I enjoyed the final 2006 Domaine de la Roquète (£31.23) for its sweet fruit and complexity.  I tried three Corbières from Cave de Castelmaure, all excellent and representing great value even compared to Rhône wines ranging from £6.28 (2008) to £10.14 (2007).

The final workshop was for grappa from the Nonino family in Friuli.  I like grappa though found these ones a bit too smooth and sweet.  This did not deter the myriad Italians who had flocked to Millbank (presumably many from Italian restaurants) who were knocking these back with gay abandon at the central bar which was groaning with little biscuits, cakes, more bottles of grappa and very fine smelling espresso machines.

The airline theme of the Enotria event was amusing though the event at times felt more like Ryan Air cattle class than Virgin Upper Class there were just so many people crammed into Altitude 360*.
The Enotria cabin crew managed to keep their sang froid though and Ben as head steward in the 'wine flights' tastings managed to chivvy along any waffling speakers as the schedule was quite tight.

NB: all precise bottle prices shown are ex VAT from Enotria

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Wine Society: a perfect wine merchant (almost)

The Wine Society is a mail order wine merchant established in the late 19th century and currently based in Stevenage.  It is one of the largest mail order merchants in the country and constantly wins gongs for the quality of the wines and service offered.   
I attended a tasting of new wines to the list given at RIBA on Thursday and was impressed by the consistency of the wines and the value for money offered.  Prices include delivery even if you live in the Outer Hebrides as long as you spend £75 or order at least 12 bottles.  You need to be a member as the Society is actually a cooperative (the oldest winedrinkers' coop in the world) but the lifetime transferable share costs just £40.  Delivery is fairly swift and if you have a problem with a wine it is replaced or refunded without fuss.
Tastings for members are regularly held around the country and for those wishing to save on the UK's punitive excise duty tax there is a shop in Montreuil-sur-Mer in northern France.  A modest discount is offered to members collecting their wine from Stevenage.  

I tasted 49 wines (out of 50, the last one having disappeared by the time I got to it) and there wasn't a duff one amongst them (even though some were not showing at their best the room being very warm).  The tasting kicked off with a crisp, dry, pear fruit Prosecco (Treviso) at £8.95 incl. delivery, an ideal aperitif and party wine.  Another good aperitif with substance to go with food too was the Manzanilla (Argüeso Las Medallas) at £6.95.  Freshness is all with fragile Manzanilla and the large turnover at The Wine Society ensures this.

Notable whites included a bargain German, The Society's own label Rheinpfalz Ruppertsberg at £6.50, a floral yet dry blend of Riesling and Sylvaner and at 11.5% alc substantial  enough to drink with food; still in Germany, a more traditional, sweet Piesporter Goldtröpfschen Riesling Spätlese 2005 (von Kesselstatt), oustanding at £16.95, a mere 8% alcohol but with flavour and length to belie this; and a Society own label (Exhibition) Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009 at £10.95 which was all textbook zesty, upfront, gooseberry fruit.  Thankfully, there was a cheeseboard at hand in the guise of lunch and I tucked into some excellent goat with the sauvignon (a Sainte Maure de Touraine from La Fromagerie).  
More interesting foodie whites included a 2009 Grenache Blanc from South Africa (The Foundry), a bargain at £7.95 with really well integrated oak, balanced acidity, and plenty of ripe but savoury fruit.  I cannot wait to serve this one blind to some unsuspecting wino friend.  For a pound more the Marsanne 2008 from Tahbilk (£8.95) in Victoria, Australia again provided plenty of the savoury flavour of a southern French grape grown in an even warmer clime.  Good Chardonnays included the Society's own label 2009 from Limari in Chile (a snip at £5.95 and unmatchable by Burgundians), the unoaked Chablis-like Maycas Reserva Especial 2008 (at an un Chablis-like £9.95), and the oaky, classy 2007 Dog Point from New Zealand (£17).  But perhaps the white with the most amount of bang for buck was the Society's own label Sauvignon Blanc 2009 from Leyda valley in Chile (£5.95).  
An interlude in the form of a rosé was provided via another Chilean, the Viña Leyda Loica Rosado 2009 (£9.50).  This had tremendous character and flavour for a Pinot Noir let alone a rosé and was almost reminiscent of a red Beaujolais.  In the red line up there was plenty of interest.  Stand out wines included a ripe, silky claret, just suffering slightly because of the heat (château Reynon 2006, £12.95), an old fashioned spicy, garrigue herby, chewy, concentrated Côtes du Rhône 2007 (J-L Chave) which was better than many a Châteauneuf du Pape but only £12.50, a bargain basement French Full Red from Roussillon at £4.95 which I often take on picnics and to parties, and an astonishing deep, baked fruit Côtes de Roussillon Villages 2007 (château de Pena, £6.50). 
From Italy I really enjoyed a complex, mature Langhe 2004 (Bricco Rosso Suagna, £6.50) from Piedmont made mainly from Dolcetto grapes with a touch of Nebbiolo, a 2007 Barbera d'Alba (Poderi Colla, £8.50), a Primitivo 2008 from Puglia (Santa Lucia, £6.50), and an Aglianico del Vulture 2003 (Alvolo £14.50).  In true Italian style, these would all have benefitted from being served with food but they were not so savoury, chewy and or bitter that they weren't enjoyable on their own too.

From Spain there was a traditional, sweetly oaky Rioja Reserva 2003 (own label from the La Rioja Alta bodega, £12.95) and from New Zealand  a pair of rather special Pinot Noirs, the first a Burgundian-with-benefits but without the price tag Momo 2008 from Marlborough (£11.95), and the second, a richer, more New World style but fine Dog Point 2007 (£18.50).  Two more big New World reds came in the form of a Shiraz 2007 from Heartland in South Australia (£9.95) and a Shiraz 2004 from Tahbilk (£10.95).  The Heartland was so concentrated it was almost salty whilst the Tahbilk was more Rhône like.  And last but not least from Chile was a Merlot 2009 at a miserly £4.75 (Doña Paulina) and a Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 at £5.75 (El Polilla).

If you want to join The Wine Society, you can be either proposed by another member or a Society employee will do this for you.  And thereafter, you need never lug your bottles home from the offie or the supermarket again.  

Finest Fast Food: Duck Confit & Lentils

Much as pasta at home must count as contender for Finest Fast Food, sometimes you run out of olives, or anchovies, or parmesan, or tomato sauce, or butter to mix in it with it.  Or you cannot face that jar of half eaten pesto you wished you'd never bought (and always wondered what relation it had with basil).  And sometimes, you run out of pasta.
If, like me, you are lucky enough to pop over to France regularly the vital thing to haul back from Carrefour and the rest is tins of preserved duck (confit de canard).  These keep for ever at the back of the cupboard and, whilst I hate most tinned meat of any description, the duck contained within is delicious.  The word confit, which seems to be entering common English usage, means preserve (hence confiture for jam) and the duck here is preserved in its own fat.
It's easy to prepare from scratch at home (Jean-Christophe Novelli has a good recipe in "Your Place or Mine") but takes about four days and then benefits from storing in a jar for a month or so.  The duck legs are rubbed in salt (and herbs) and then left to exude moisture and are thereafter submerged in duck fat and cooked very gently for a few hours.  The legs are used because they are tough and benefit from the tenderising and flavour developing effects of salting and long slow cooking.  But here we want something fast and now and just want to reach for the can opener.
Turn the oven on high, preferably with the grill on too which helps to crisp up the skin, scrape the excess fat off the meat and roast for about 20 minutes.  A good accompaniment are tinned lentils which just need 5 minutes in a saucepan. 
 You can buy cans of confit in smart delis, Harrods,  and Selfridges probably, but you'll pay a lot more than in France in spite of the strength of the Euro.  But it's worth splashing out because the end result is so good you could be in a restaurant in Gascony instead of in your Acton bedsit.

And a huge bonus is that you have enough fat left over in the tin to fry potatoes for the next 6 months.

Which is another contender for Finest Fast Food as long as you have some spuds to hand.