Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas 'Fruits de Mer' Frenzy

For our Christmas Eve meal, we had the most massive fruits de mer ever in the world. I doubt I’ll remember everything, but I’ll give it a go: Prawns, smoked prawns, home-dressed crab, potted shrimps, steamed mussels, oysters, clams, land snails with garlic and parsley butter, scallops cooked with breadcrumbs and herbs, shallot vinegar, homemade mayonnaise …and chips.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Stop UK Mega-Dairies

This is important - Follow this Compassion in World Farming link on the perils of mega-dairies proposed for the UK.

Apart from the cows never seeing the light of day, there is also human cost to these and they are a disaster for diversity: I have spoken to French farmers who are already suffering from being out-priced by Dutch mega-dairies, and for several years it has no longer been possible to find local butter in the UK, as ALL UK butter is made in 2 giant dairies, and small producers can't compete on price. Local, individual, unusual dairy products will disappear or only be available to the wealthy.

If you care about:

• Nice food
• Cows
• Not having all money from dairy products going to a very few rich businessmen rather than normal farmers.

...then please take literally a minute to fill out their email form to send to your MP. The link to send the form is at the bottom of this page.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mushrooms That Look Like A Bum/ Arse/ Fanny - Any Ideas?

Anyone know what this mushroom could be? It is a boletus, pale yellow underneath, dark brown on top, a bit like a cep/ cèpe/ penny bun, but we found it growing in pairs so close together that it looks like bum cheeks (fanny or ass in American English). The stalks are separate, but the caps had often fused together.

Didn't get a pic, because we'd hoped to easily identify them and return to forage if they were edible, but today they had ALL been picked ...which implies that they are very edible! And to 'cap' it all off, I can't find a trace of them online...

Friday, October 15, 2010

My First Puffball

For so many years, I've been dying to try a puffball - their solid mushroom flesh looked so satisfying, and it would be so gratifying to find one and then have mounds of the flesh to gorge on, free of gills and stalks.

Well I didn't exactly find my first, because it was growing in some friends' garden. There were loads of them, slow-mo popping out of the ground, like bubbles appearing in boiling water. I chose a medium-sized one (about 15cm across) and carefully pulled it off the ground. It had such a small area joined to the earth compared to the size of the mushroom.

That was last night. At lunchtime today, I peeled half of it (slugs had been munching the outside) and sliced it. It was lighter and softer than expected. I then obviously had to try my first puffball fried in butter with garlic and parsley. It was soooo damn good! Soft and silky - not slimy - with the distinct mushroom flavour.

The other half will go in an omelette for my supper.

My puffball experience has added to the loveliness of my autumny day - the first really cold day after a run of hot weather, so I lit the fire before going out into the sunny, crisp, dewy, morning to the village market. When I got back, the house had warmed up and I sat working by the fire until my mushroom lunch...

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Tunisia-Inspired Meal

I made moutabel, humous and flatbreads for some friends, followed by ojja. I was really pleased with the result, and my guests naturellement loved it all. The moutabel made good use of my bumper crop of aubergines, too.

The ojja was made with garlic, olive oil, green peppers, cumin, aniseed (didn't have caraway), green olives, merguez sausages and garden tomatoes, with eggs broken in near the end.

Humous with olive oil, smoked paprika and basil flowers

Moutabel with pomegranate molasses, walnuts and parsley

Anyone know where I can get whole blanched almonds in the Dordogne? I want to make the cous-cous we had in Tunisia, but in this part of France almonds only seem to be available either with their skin or flaked.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Roux at Parliament Square - Review

This is the new restaurant by Michel Roux Jr., who doesn't currently have a resident chef - Dan Cox left after a few weeks in the job.

Reviews in the papers have been mixed, but all agreed that the decor was really boring and "a sea of beige". I disagree! It is muted, yes, but the main effect is really comfortable in a classy way - nice. Not too much actual beige.

Pretty aperitif nibbles were followed swiftly by delightful amuse bouches of velvety baby carrot soup, and then starters. All a little too speedy and lots of flouncy table-waiting. Even the smallest of items seemed to require one waiter to hold a silver tray, while two others fussed around the table.

The Albert Roux (Lenoble) Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc champagne (£12 a glass) was excellent, with loads of flavour. It was so good, I'm going to buy some online.

My butter-poached langoustines were most enjoyable, but there were errors; not particularly buttery and one of my crustaceans wasn't cooked through - lucky I like raw seafood. The summer truffle accompanying the langoustines was thankfully boosted by some mushroom purée. I was looking forward at last to experiencing the elusive flavour of summer truffle, but I didn't. That's the last straw - I won't expect flavour from summer truffle ever again. I wish that restaurateurs would always use Italian white truffles or Périgord black truffles in winter, and truffle oil - even just nature-identical - for summer dishes. At least the fake oil tastes of something!

The veal main course was really outstanding. It would not be possible to find meat that was more tender and juicy. Everything - the fillet, summer vegetables and sweetbread - was perfectly cooked, and the smoked pomme mousseline was delectable and matched the rest of the dish perfectly. Great to be able to taste the smokiness, and the creamy potato was laden with butter but still light and delicate.

The pre-dessert was a lovely fruity concoction, but a bit unnecessary. It was unfortunately more enjoyable than my main dessert. The peach soufflé looked magnificent and was beautifully light, but it was far too sweet, and tasted of egg. I couldn't taste much peach other than from the few tiny cubes of peach at the bottom. The overwhelming sweetness was enhanced by crispy caramel bits, while my poor taste buds were screaming for some tangy peach coulis (or a cup of tea) to rescue them, but to no avail.

I even ate a petit four - dark chocolate flaked with gold, around a lovely strawberry 'crunchie' - to dull the sweetness, and it did help slightly!

The meal at Roux was certainly special. Critics have said it is well overpriced (£55 for three courses), but I'm not so sure - the ingredients and attention to detail were top-notch, and if there had been no mistakes, it would not have been overpriced. Maybe I caught them on an off-day? It is true, though, that for that price, there shouldn't ever be mistakes.

I'd have been happier with a less fussy service and no culinary errors, but the experience was generally very worthwhile.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Tunisian Wedding, Tunisian Fooood!

My brother married his Tunisian bride in the seaside town of Kelibia. It was a week of festivities and ceremonies, and a week of fantastic food and drink adventures.

I arrived at Tunis airport exhausted after a couple of days' travel and delays. It was hot and windy outside and I was relieved to be out of air conditioning and in warmth. There were several hours to wait before the rest of my family arrived, but my brother was there to meet me and take me out to lunch in the capital. We sped through the chaotic traffic and drove to a calmer part of town, by the sea. Our destination was a little place I had heard lots about - all good.

We got to the rather strong-smelling fishmonger's just before they closed but there were still piles of fantastic-looking seafood in crates on the counters. We bought loads of small red mullet, baby cuttlefish and fat prawns for about £2.

Then my brother sat down at the restaurant next door, where they were going to cook our seafood and supply us with salad, bread and drinks to go with it - all for about £3. No wine or beer - my first experience as an adult of a culture that discourages alcohol consumption.

I went into the kitchen to watch the seafood being grilled over a huge barbecue.

Feeling revived after gorging on that delicious lunch, we went back to the airport to collect the rest of the family. Then we had a three hour journey through towns and prairie, past prickly pears and shepherds, to our seaside destination.

Each day of the rest of the week followed the rough timetable of: greek coffee in bedouin tent café for breakfast; mint tea with pinenuts floating in it or fruit juice and shisha in lovely café overlooking the sea; lunch of harissa dip and olives followed by seafood next to the sea; a tourist trip (e.g. amazingly intact pre-roman ruins) or time on a white sand beach; family feast at Haifa's house in the evening.

Evening meals included baked fish, brick (deep-fried parcel of filo pastry filled with goodies like tuna, prawns and egg), salads, cous-cous with tripe, loads of salata mechouia (spicy green pepper salad, see pic above), and a wonderful cous-cous and lamb dish with hard-boiled eggs, sultanas, almonds, hazelnuts and chick peas.

Me and my brothers :)

Special cakes and blue minty fizzy drinks were served at the female-only henna party. All that, along with the tattoos, the mound of henna studded sugared almonds, the traditional clothes, incense and the rounds of "ayayeayayayayaye" calls made everything seem mystical and magical.

...We also stopped for mutton barbecued at the roadside - mechoui. We chose the joint according to weight and the man hacked it up. His son cooked the meat, and his daughter and wife served the meal. It was soooo good and we did very well in finishing the huge amount of food.

Back in Tunis at the end of the week, we had trouble finding open restaurants, especially as many look like private residences and lots had closed due to it (late July!) being their low season. Eventually, we happened upon one of those Islamic-tiled merchant house restaurants that you read about in any travel literature on North Africa; Dar Hamouda Pacha, 56 Rue Sidi Ben Arous in the souk.

The food was excellent and so reasonably priced - cheap, in fact. The service and attention to detail was superb, there were musicians playing local music ...and we pretty much had the enormous place to ourselves. My brother and I shared fish cous-cous and veal with tuna sauce - a very Italian dish (vitello tonato), but for much of the trip we were in sight of Italian islands, so the cuisine of each country must have mingled since time began. The veal was served with a delightful rice and pistachio dish. Dessert was a kind of pinenut blancmange, with plenty of mint tea to wash it down.

On my last day I was in Tunis alone, so spent hours exploring the souk. I came away with rose water, the special fragrant and floatable pinenuts for adding to mint tea (also delish with natural yogurt and honey), and ground smokey hot peppers for making harissa. I couldn't fit any more in my case, sadly.

My last meal was half a an extremely tasty herb-stuffed rotisserie chicken with salad and bread. I ate it in a local café and my dinner cost less than £2 - far cheaper than the touristy restaurants I'd been to with my family, and just as good. But tourist restaurants do serve beer and the fabulous Muscat de Kelibia wine...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Palavas-Les-Flots, Near Montpellier

My birthday treat! My companion and I drove the 6 hours from my place down to the little seaside fishing town of Palavas-Les-Flots.

On the day itself, we had champagne on the beach, followed by lunch of oysters for me, lobster for him, followed by more champagne on the beach. After all that, we needed a nap, but not before we had reserved a late table on the port for my birthday supper of fruits de mer (seafood platter).

Unfortunately, we woke up at the time of our booking, and my companion takes AGES to get ready for anything. An hour later, we emerged to look for somewhere to eat, but everywhere had stopped serving. Thankfully, we found a little café that was closing up but still serving, and had a delicious meal of tender, tasty steak and chips.

We had fruits de mer for lunch one day, instead.

Montpellier is minutes up the road from Palavas, and we happened to visit on Pride Carnival day. Such a cosmopolitan, buzzing place, and very refreshing after the rural South-West. It was like Brighton but with hot sun.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Manuka Honey

Have you ever tried Manuka honey from New Zealand? You might have heard about its health benefits (antibacterial and antiviral among other things, for internal and topical use), but it is worth trying for gastronomic reasons - totally different from any other honey.

I've got Styx Apiaries' Organic Manuka Honey. When I first open the jar, I can smell rising bread dough, but sniff closer and the dark furniture polish fragrances typical of forest honey take over, with extra scents that are acidic and of rich vanilla.

The honey is dark and runny, and has kind of a savoury flavour to it, owing to its acidity. It is quite tangy but has a powerful, long-lasting melt-in-the mouth butteryness to it.

Like all honeys, Manuka is suited to particular uses; it is ideal for any meat recipe that includes honey, because it is not too sweet and its flavours compliment meat. Best is on bread from my local wood-fired bakery, with a touch of salty butter. And a cup of tea, of course - yummy.

Styx Apiaries' honey has a high content of active ingredient (UMF +10), and unlike other honeys, Manuka's active ingredient is not destroyed by heat, so you get some goodness from it even if you've used it in cooking. Search online for suppliers.

Manuka plant

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sanguettes - Blood Cakes

I love black pudding, especially the smooth French ones, so I had been meaning to try a sanguette for years. When ducks that have been raised for foie gras are killed, their blood is saved to make these sort of thick pancake things. Seasoning, garlic and oil goes into the pan, before the congealed blood. When it's cooked, it just looks like a lump of boudin noir (black pudding without cereals).

At the winter 'fat market' - where foie gras and all the other parts of the bird are sold - my mouth watered as I selected the tastiest-looking sanguette from the nicest-looking stall. It was wrapped in wax paper, and I could hardly wait to get it home.

Back in my kitchen, I prepared a plate with some dressed salad leaves and a dollop of special pink peppercorn mustard. Butter sizzled in the pan as I put in the heavy, hard sanguette. A couple of minutes on each side, then straight on the plate and I took my treasure out into the sun, to enjoy with a glass of red.

It was disgusting. I can't remember disliking any food or drink as much as this. I attempted to enjoy it several times before actually binning the thing - unheard-of behaviour for me.

It had the dense, dry, saliva-sapping texture of the liver that was served in English schools in the 80s - the reason so many of my contemporaries can't stand liver. It tasted bitter and musky and not of much else. Dried blood and boiled offal. That shouldn't be surprising I suppose, but I normally love offal and blood products!

The difference must be that boudin noir is blood mixed with loads of cream, fat and seasoning. Maybe duck's blood would also be nice if it was mixed with the same volume of cream, loads of fat, heavy seasoning, caramelised onions and a lot more garlic...?