Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mezcal Worms

I love mezcal/mescal - the smoky brother of tequila. I brought a bottle back from my June trip to Mexico, and it had a couple of worms in it. I'm fully aware that worms are passé for both mezcal and tequila, and are considered a gimmick for ignorant drinkers, but I chose this one for the bottle rather than the worms. I also didn't choose it for the little bag of chilli salt it came with, containing coloured industrial sodium chloride.

The one I selected from a mind-boggling range was the Don Lucio 100% agave, unaged. I thought the label looked nice, and made it appear that the producer cares about making a quality product, despite the worms and salt sack.

The mezcal within was very nice. Pretty smokey and leathery and probably more rustic than refined, but I really enjoyed it, and at least the agave content meant there weren't industrial alcohols added to it.

And I couldn't not try the worms, obviously!

They're apparently a recent addition, but supposedly add flavour, despite being already cured in alcohol before being added to the mezcal. The larvae used are often Picudo larvae, which are usually roasted and eaten as a seasonal specialty in Southeastern Mexico, so they can't be that bad, and call me odd but I do like the idea of roasted larvae. Most grub species that are used in mezcal live in the agave plants, and some can cause devastating damage to the crop, so putting them in booze and then eating them is some kind of revenge. I was unable to identify the exact species in my mezcal so can't give you more details on that. Anyone know?

The urban myth of hallucinogenic qualities is just that, and I doubt any variety of caterpillar used in mezcal has mind-altering properties other than it being mainly made up of alcohol by the time it's consumed.

Verdict: No flavour whatsoever. Barely enough texture to be exciting or disgusting. Got the willies a bit when I was holding a worm and biting into it, so that provided a bit of fun - I actually imagined the thing moved! It was like biting into an undercooked french bean or chewing on a bit of connective tissue. Quite chewy but not difficult to swallow. Not unpleasant but not enough anything to be pleasant either. In short, this was a pointless exercise gastronomically, but satisfied my own curiosity. I ate both worms as I can't bear to waste 'food', but they would be far nicer fried up with some garlic and salt than pickled in mezcal. I can't imagine they give off much flavour either, but would love to taste a before-and-after.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

East Dulwich & Peckham Eateries

I moved to East Dulwich about a year ago and have been exploring restaurants here and in Peckham, with the help of Jay Rayner and Hollow Legs. Here are a few mini-reviews:

Franklins, East Dulwich

I thought this was just a cute pub until a friend suggested eating here the other day. In the back is a cosy restaurant with open kitchen. Fantastic and imaginative seasonal menu, great cocktails, inspiring wine list. I had rolled spleen (rich and almost creamy - delicious!) with pickles followed by roast partridge (crispy feet but still slightly pink inside - perfect), cavolo nero and wild mushrooms. My friend had prawns with aioli followed by the partridge. The prawns were exceptionally sweet and delicate. It was all like home cooking with the best possible ingredients. Starters around £8, mains £15 - £22, cocktails £8.

Le Chadron, East Dulwich

A very over-priced French bistro. I realised when eating their very nice food that most people in there were on Groupon deals, so always get a voucher if you want to try this place. With a voucher, the price is about right. The food is good but nothing amazing - standard bistro fayre like pâté with garnish and moules. No problems, really nice dining room that used to be a butchers, but felt a bit ripped off.

Il Giardino, Peckham

This place is rammed with clutter and chintz. Awful taste in terms of decor. Lots of memorabilia on the walls about the restaurant having existed 20 years or more - clearly they haven't decorated since then. BUT the food is good. Presentation of dishes is as dated as the decor, but it tastes good. It's got a cosy atmosphere, with friendly service, reasonable prices and wine in carafes - ideal.

Several more reviews on the way...

Monday, July 14, 2014

Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

Mexico's been on my top 10 list for about a decade, so I was extremely excited at booking this week away, last minute (though not on, which was a few hundred quid more per holiday than Teletext). However, I'd always imagined a back-packing exploration of the country ...culminating in a trip down the coast from Cancun via Mayan ruins, through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and finishing up in Colombia. One week at an all-inclusive resort is pretty much the opposite of what I'd envisaged.

It was still an adventure, though. My first experience of the Caribbean Sea! And as it's the reverse of what I'm used to, the all-inclusive aspect was slightly adventurous if only because it was my first time.

  • Being permanently warm enough at night in sea breeze, without a jumper. This is a first for me, and very relaxing.
  • The beach: Incredible! White, soft sand; crystal clear, warm, turquoise sea; hot sun; palm trees; beach bar selling frozen margaritas.
  • Cocktails on tap for 'free'
  • Miraculously never feeling hungover, and getting up early each day.
  • Mexican food, of course.

  • Feeling ripped off for anything that wasn't all-inclusive
  • Ridiculous booking system for hotel meals
  • Suspect the drinks were severely watered down (hence lack of hangovers). They didn't taste boozy. I'd get the barmen to top up cocktails straight from the bottle, they'd put loads in and the drinks would still not taste strong.
  • Not enough 'real' Mexico, which isn't surprising.

Food-wise, I enjoyed having guacamole and salsa with every breakfast, every lunch and most dinners. The breakfast buffets were excellent, and I usually had refried beans, quesadillas (chorizo or chicken), eggs, bacon, tropical fruit (including unbelievably wonderful mango), sausage, stewed pork and more, along with the guac and salsa. Every morning I woke up not being hungry, but still managed to polish off a whole plate of buffet.

Example of breakfast

Note best mango possible at the back

I had ceviche every lunchtime, usually unidentified white fish at the hotel. The best one I had was on the beach in Playa Del Carmen, at Tarraya restaurant. It was octopus so not raw, but really tasty. The pre-ceviche homemade nachos at Tarraya came with a great scotch bonnet and lime dressing which could blow your eyeballs out.

Nachos with scotch bonnet salsa at Tarraya

Octopus ceviche at Tarraya

The 'à la carte' hotel restaurants (as oppose to buffets) were generally canteen style environments, with no open windows or outside space and lots of air con. The food was good, but not very interesting. The insane booking system meant we only ate at them a couple of times. The dinner buffets were good but quite samey, especially after similar breakfast and lunch buffets. 

One night, we took a taxi to '5th Avenue' (i.e. the strip) to eat dinner with another couple. The street in question was crazily touristy and the fajitas were more expensive than in London. They charged us $6 each for a shot of basic tequila, and that was after some serious haggling! The food was good, but I was itching to go off piste and find a normal Mexican café. On the bus back to the airport, we passed tonnes of such places (plastic tables and chairs, hand-painted signs and menus, cheap) and I had a pang of regret that I hadn't pushed my companion harder to go to these types of places at least on a couple of evenings.

On our last evening we had tried to go back to Tarraya for grilled lobster, but it was closed by the time we got there, so we had an argument instead.

I had hoped to go on a trip to a Mayan pyramid in the jungle, but after an extortionately expensive and disappointing boat trip to Isla Mujeres we were put off any other pricey tourist trips. We didn't have enough time there to get to grips with public transport options for going it alone. 

One thing that I got fed up about to the point of responding angrily was the sales technique of every type of vendor (streets, shops, bars, beach), who ALL asked us our names, nationality and whether we were newlyweds (not ideal during the last evening argument). It's none of your business, and telling you won't make me want to buy your goods or services! I lost patience in the end and rudely stopped interacting at all.

So, now I've experienced a 'normal' luxury holiday. It was a fantastic break and I loved most of it. I would definitely like to go back to Mexico, but I will also definitely avoid all-inclusive holidays. A week was not enough.

Beeeaaaautiful beach, perfect sea

Hutong Rant Review

It’s difficult to get a table at The Shard’s Hutong restaurant, but I managed to get one for my partner’s birthday at 10:30pm (the only time available that evening), by booking three weeks in advance.

Jay Rayner had said that the food was good, but that the high price was really for the view and the ambience. I was OK with that because it would feel special for a birthday and ‘good’ was good enough. Sadly, it wasn't good, it was bad.

Due to friends dropping by unexpectedly with birthday bubbles we were running quite late. I tried to call Hutong (number not on their website so found it on Google), but the answer machine was on some kind of faulty loop, so it wasn’t possible to get through. I emailed to explain that we were running 20 minutes late, would that be OK and if so to please hold the table for us.

I got there 25 minutes late and rushed in while my partner found somewhere to park. They didn’t know anything about my email but I was relieved when it didn’t seem to be a problem and they took me to a window table.

On the way to the table I was told the kitchen would be closing in four minutes and I would have to order for my guest. As soon as I sat down I was given a menu and the waitress stood next to me while I chose our dishes. I was reminded about the strict four minute deadline.

Seconds after giving the order, Birthday Boy arrived and wanted to change a dish but was told it was too late. “You’re very late, aren’t you?” a waitress commented.

The view is still there

Nevermind, we ordered champagne and shortly after it was poured, our first starter of 'Sichuan peppered cuttlefish with ma la chilli sauce’ arrived, and it was very good; well-spiced, tasty and tender. I thought it was a bit strange that our other starter didn’t arrive at the same time for this style of dining. Also, our second starter was ‘Thinly-cut pork belly with cucumber slices marinated in a chilli and garlic sauce’, but the cuttlefish arrived on a bed of cucumber, so it could have been cucumber overload.

But the pork never materialised. After ages of waiting, a waiter came with the dessert menu, asking us to order before he closed his dessert operation for the night. We asked him to check on the progress of the cold pork starter. Another long wait. Then our main arrived, followed by the dessert waiter. He explained that the pork had run out. We explained why it was annoying that no-one had told us and we hadn’t been asked whether we'd like to select something else. He didn’t get it, and rudely argued with us but our angry response to him blaming us for being late sent him scuttling to the manager.

Mains: The salt and pepper soft-shelled crab was horribly greasy and under-seasoned. I couldn’t taste any spices. The coating was completely soggy and oozed oil as I chewed. I’ve had better at my local Chinese. The pile of plain crabs were presented in the middle of a preposterous ring of decorative dried red peppers.

The marinated, braised and ‘crispy’ deep fried de-boned lamb ribs were tasty and well-seasoned but chewy and again very greasy. And not crispy. The egg-fried rice was nice.

The dessert waiter returned to mumble apologies and say we could have free desserts to make up for the mistake with our starter.

I gave Birthday Boy my dessert. The lychee ice-cream was nice. Nothing special but not actively bad. The mango rolls were actively bad; dry and tasteless with tiny mean cubes of mango inside the rubbery rolls that looked like they’d been drying out on a windowsill for a few hours.

All the waiting staff had disappeared. We waited and waited but no-one was around. I (half-) jokingly suggested doing a runner, as it seemed we had been abandoned and the evening had been so shoddy and infuriating that I wasn’t keen on paying for it. When I started wandering around to get attention someone eventually turned up and allowed us to pay. He asked how the dessert was. We told him. He smiled and nodded and didn’t care or register our diplomatic criticism of the mango rolls.

We could have enjoyed the view and continued our evening at the bar downstairs but by that time just wanted to get out of the building. Such a shame. A ruined birthday treat.

If I’m late for a booking (even having done everything I could to warn the venue), I do understand if I have to order quickly, but other than that the service and food should be the same as at any other time. It’s the same price. If you don’t have time to give customers the experience they’re paying for don’t let them in. If I’d known that I would be treated like a naughty child, had my order messed up, endured poor and unaccommodating service and received unacceptable food for a sky-high price, I would have gone elsewhere. I know it was late in the evening to find somewhere else, but a kebab would have been preferable.

UPDATE: When I tweeted my review to Hutong they responded to apologise and asked if I had contacted them before posting the review. I said that I had filled in a survey from the booking company with my contact details but no-one had been in touch, which made me feel they didn't care and resulted in the blog post. They investigated and found that the booking company had not been passing on all feedback (negative feedback). Huntong said they had used my experience to improve training and bollock the booking company, and offered me a bottle of Champagne at the venue. I appreciated the offer, very pleasant communications, explanations and investigation, but would feel uncomfortable drinking Champagne somewhere I'd complained about.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Rabbit Stew in London

Having grown up in the countryside and then lived in France I hadn't realised the rabbit is currently part of Britain's food history. It's apparently a very unusual meat for most Londoners nowadays.

But my local butcher stocks it and a restaurant client inspired me with one of their current chef's specials: Rabbit cooked with white wine and rosemary.

I was pleased to find that rabbits come with giblets. I butchered my bunny hind half and browned the pieces in a frying pan. Then I deglazed the pan with white wine. I put the rabbit and wine in an oven dish with onion, lots of garlic, rosemary, lemon zest, a little lemon juice, some left over flageolet beans, lots of extra virgin olive oil, some potatoes, salt and pepper. It all went in a hot oven for a couple of hours. It was delicious.

Back end of bunny

Ready split, with giblets
Squeamish moment? Fur still clinging. But it is a rabbit, so
what do you expect?
Straight from the oven
A simple country dinner, in London town


My local butcher markets itself as free-range and organic, but they're not very good at being open about their stock's provenance. I suspect they're not very good at being honest either. They enjoy queues down the street on a Saturday, as their well to-do Dulwich customers shun the supermarket in support of their local posh shops - and so they should. The range and quality of the meat is outstanding - far, far better than Sainsbury's. But they should respect their many trusting customers enough to be truthful.

When asked, it turns out that not all the chickens are free-range. The 'dry cured' bacon does not look or behave as if it is dry cured. I wanted to email them with this particular feedback, but they don't have an email address. I feel I can't actually talk to them about it, either, because their shop is always full of customers. I now get Sainsbury's 'outdoor bred' (Bred = not good enough. I want totally outdoor raised and bred free-range pleeeeaaaaase!) dry cured bacon, and all other meat from the butcher. The butcher's ham is exceptionally good and reasonably priced. I really, really hope that's free-range, but it's next on the list to check...

The other day, I asked their largest and most sarcastic staff member (not by choice - he was serving me at the time) whether their rabbits are wild or farmed. He said farmed. I asked how they are farmed - in cages? He said, "no in a field with a fence round it". That's not feasible. And he sounded as if he was making it up as he went along. I've previously had a problem with the same guy when trying to find out more about the very expensive turkey I was buying, and he seemed to regard me as an idiotic cow and failed to answer my questions.

I called the shop this morning and asked more questions about the rabbit farm or supplier, and was told that at this time of year they are farmed, and yes in cages, thus confirming that the big guy was talking huevos de toro. The most I could get on the supplier was that they are in Yorkshire. I rang one supplier there who told me that all their rabbits are wild whatever time of year it is, so it must have been the wrong supplier or else the butchers are under-selling their rabbit. I gave up after that sliver of investigative journalism, but my conclusion is that you can still get wild rabbit easily, but that I don't trust William Rose butchers in East Dulwich to supply it.

History & Stuff

Until the '50s, rabbit had been a staple of the British diet since forever. Then myxomatosis was deliberately introduced to control the wild rabbit population, and it disappeared from the menu. A delicious, nutritious, free, plentiful, wild food wiped out. I can't understand why more hasn't been done to eradicate the cruel disease.

In the middle ages, enormous managed warrens filled with hundreds of rabbits were run in Norfolk, to meet the demand for rabbit meat - wild ones weren't enough, and I guess...something to do with poaching laws.

Once a year, my parents in Sussex are visited by Mr Warren (YES) and his ferrets. The ferrets hunt and kill any rabbits in the garden (sounds horrific but it all happens in an instant, so very quick horror), then my dad pays Mr Warren for the cull and keeps a rabbit or two to eat.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wild Asparagus + Asparagus

This is a special double whammy 'sparagus recipe by Perry Lancaster, for the few remaining days of the wild asparagus season. The wild stuff is actually somewhat bitter, but that goes perfectly with the sweetness of the cultivated version.

Firstly, forage for some wild asparagus from a hedgerow - see the photo of an almost-over specimen growing below. I had been looking for something similar to the feathery fronds you see on regular asparagus plants if they are allowed to grow beyond spears, but wild asparagus is completely different and more like a creeper. I'm keeping an eye out in leafy South-East London, but haven't found any yet - lots of things that look almost like it could be it, but so far not actually it.

Wild asparagus growing in a hedgerow, France.

Here's the delectable recipe:

  • Melt some butter with olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. Don't allow it to fry; just keep it warm. 
  • Steam or simmer the normal asparagus until almost done, then add the wild asparagus and cook for a further 2 - 3 minutes. 
  • Drain and assemble the asparagus on a warm plate, and douse with the sauce.
  • Add a little more olive oil and lemon zest, and serve immediately.

Double asparagus dish: Asparagus with wild asparagus

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Organic Gluten Free Belgian Beer

I've just been sent some samples of an organic Belgian beer range, by Van Bulck. They've recently started importing to the UK, having signed up their first few trade customers.

The exciting thing for me is that the range includes a gluten free lager, pictured below. A few years ago, my brother was on a mission to make gluten free beer for my other brother who shouldn't consume gluten. Attempts were made with various GF cereals and seeds, with varying degrees of success. We discussed whether it had the potential to be produced on an industrial scale, but as usual with our numerous business ideas, that's as far as it got.

Since then, a close friend and lager lover has become acutely gluten intolerant, and increasingly fed up by the lack of beer in her life.

I'm very pleased to say that Van Bulck's 5.2% GF lager is delicious. I'm tasting it now. Light straw in colour. Actually smells a bit straw-like and fruity too. It's hoppy and well-balanced, with a long, moreish, malty finish.

Well done Van Bulck! I'm looking forward to seeing your beer in pubs across the UK, and hope it will soon be stocked in shops too, so I can get some in for when my gluten intolerant friend comes to stay. I know this isn't the first GF lager here, but I think it's likely to become widely available and popular. Is it the first organic GF beer in the UK?

Interestingly, it is gluten free due to a 'special brewing process', rather than the use of GF base materials (it is made with barley), so all my brother's brewing efforts with things like quinoa are slightly irrelevant. Although they did taste good, so maybe that could be a possible new branch of GF beer production?

I'm looking forward to trying Van Bulck's white and wild fruit beers over the weekend. They're not GF but I do particularly love white and fruit beer when it's sunny.

Monday, April 14, 2014

La Plagne Family Holiday

In March, I went on a skiing/ snowboarding holiday with my family. I often go with my brothers and various family friends, but this time my parents came for the first time in years, and my sister-in-law and nephew came for the first time ever.

We went to La Plagne 1800, and stayed in a very nice catered chalet. [Gossip: Boris Johnson had stayed in the same chalet two weeks earlier.] The ski lifts and slopes were a short walk away and the snow was in good condition. The food at the chalet was OK - not unpleasant but far from very good. Other chalet guests really enjoyed it so maybe we're too fussy (discerning). The box wine was also OK.

The trip was my nephew's first experience of snow, which of course he loved. One major problem, though, was that he fell ill with a 24 hour stomach upset, undoubtedly picked up from the crèche. The bug then swept through the entire chalet over the course of the week, and almost everyone fell ill and had to have a day in bed. That includes people that were not in our family group, so we felt quite guilty that little Laith had infected everyone on their holiday. What can you do?

View from our chalet at sunset

Most of the patients fell ill on the chalet hosts' night off, i.e. the evening we had been anticipating with the most excitement, as we could go to a restaurant and eat vast quantities of fondue, raclette and the trimmings. So, 1/3 of our family stayed home in bed and 2/3 went to Le Refuge in Plagne Centre. 1/2 of those who went to the restaurant (me and my mum) couldn't eat much. My mum had a couple of mouthfuls of vegetable soup and I didn't order anything as I felt like I might throw up at any second, but nicked some of my dad's and brother's fondue and salad. Others in the chalet fell ill directly after they had enjoyed whole fondues and raclettes, and said they have been put off the dishes for life. Heavy cheese + sick bug = worst combination.

Le Refuge restaurant is highly recommended in online reviews. My brothers had been there last year and enjoyed it. The décor and ambience are 'luxe Alpine' and the food is good; better than the standard mountain tourist fare. We felt a bit smug not going to the restaurant recommended by the chalet hosts, who may have received backhanders for bookings, as Le Refuge was clearly much better in every way.

The Green Team - my bros at the summit

Apart from the bug ruining the gastronomic highlight of the trip, we all had a great holiday, the skiing was fantastic, and it was really special all being together. One or other of us is usually abroad, and my brother, his wife and their baby live in Tunisia.

And after a decade of boarding (badly), I have gone back to skiing. It's a big relief, as I was so anxious if conditions weren't right for boarding that I couldn't turn or do anything and it ruined things for everyone. I couldn't board if the snow was icy or hard or flat or narrow, like in a chemin, or if I was tired. Now I'm only going to board after powder dumps, and am free to roam the mountains on skies for the rest of the time.

A Week Back in France

At the end of Feb, I took my first trip back to France in a whole year. I've never had a gap like that since I moved there in 2002. Anyway, I had a very lovely time, mainly made up of boozy lunches and dinners with old friends.

One lunch party went on all day and all evening, starting with a Vietnamese feast. Julie and Peter Harris had just been on holiday to Vietnam, and as Julie is a chef they had taken cooking classes on the beach. About 20 of us were invited to taste Julie's new Vietnamese repertoire. We had pho to start, which was completely authentic and delicious, and you couldn't tell that some ingredients like Thai basil had been missed out due to not existing in rural France. Normal basil with mint and coriander did the trick. After that we had two different curries with sticky rice. We had such a good time that I somehow didn't get home from lunch until about 1am.

Julie's pho
Me with the Harris' sweet dog, Caramel
Other meals included pizzas cooked in a wood fired oven, a birthday party of raclette with caiparinhas, and lunch at the La Mule Blanche local restaurant. I cooked a couple of times, including roasting a big free-range chicken from a farmer lady at the market - incomparable to supermarket chickens or any that I've had in the UK. The flavour was wonderful, and it came with giblets (including its still-attached head), so I could make really tasty gravy.

Flowers from a friend, in my kitchen

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Wine & Spirits Course

I’ve just had one of my favourite drink adventures so far, and I didn’t even make or swallow any booze. Apart from taking tiny sips here and there, which is unavoidable when tasting very old or expensive or magical wines.

I took the intermediate (level 2) Wine & Spirits Education Trust course, which included lots of home study and preparation, followed by three days of intense learning and tasting – we tried 44 wines. Previously, I considered myself reasonably knowledgeable on wine. Now I know how ignorant I was. It’s embarrassing! No wonder I was lost when choosing Bordeaux! And how can I not have ensured I fully understood the whole process of champagne production, and what makes one champagne differ from another?! And fortified wines? I was clueless!

The problem is, although I am a lot less ignorant than I was before the course, I am now also aware of the remaining gaps in my knowledge. I’ve only gently prodded at the musty surface of a giant vat of wine education. So now I’ve got to save up for the advanced course. 

Rather more encouraging was finding that I do seem to know something about spirits.

UPDATE: I passed Level 2 with Distinction! Whoop whoop!