Thursday, 29 December 2011

Just enough time to look back

It’s the time of the year when, according to tradition, a look back over the preceding 12 months is in order.

And who am I to buck such a trend?

Sometimes this is a general review, but it can be specific to a subject too.

So here – but in no particular order – are a few of my favourite food-based memories from the last 360-odd days.

Meal of the year

It has to be that charity dinner in the spring at The Zetter, with Raymond Blanc and Bruno Loubet cooking, for pretty much obvious reasons.

Memorable it most certainly was – perhaps particularly because we could spot, easily, who was behind which course. And because it was clear that Blanc had brought with him produce from his kitchens at Le Manoir – the baby vegetables that somehow managed to be jam-packed with flavour and the air-dried duck that he’d been demonstrating on the television only a week earlier.

Single course of the year

The marrowbone at 7e Vin in Paris. Utter fabulousness.

I called it food for the soul then – I’m sticking with that now. My first experience of marrowbone in Carcassonne in July was good: this managed to be even better.

Restaurant of the year

Bistrot Bruno Loubet. No longer a discovery for us, but now a firm favourite – consistently wonderful food.

But also a mention for Au Casot in Collioure – not least because it’s wonderful to eat such simple but fresh and first-rate seafood right next to a beach, overlooking such an incredible scene.

Restaurant discovery of the year

Three really.

L'Amphitryon in Collioure. Finally, a genuinely memorable ‘posh’ eatery in our favourite place.

The cod with aïoli (pictured left) was quite superb, while the cassis sorbet re-introduced me to blackcurrants – I could happily have eaten it by the bucket.

Never mind Ribena: this was something very grown up.

Then there was Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery in Glasgow, which came up a really excellent – and stunningly good value – Sunday lunch, and Michael Caines @Abode in Manchester, where I enjoyed an excellent tasting menu.

Best fast food of the year

Fish and chips, done properly, in dripping and with proper mushy peas, in a small cafe on the dock side at Scarborough. It took 10 minutes to cook from the start – so that's 'fast' in my book.

And it was gorgeous.

Book of the year (recipes)

This might be about to be Michel Roux’s Desserts, but otherwise, Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets.

Book of the year

Raymond Blanc’s A Taste of My Life, for the reasons explained here.

But special mentions also for Matthew Fort’s Eating Up Italy, Nigel Slater’s Toast and the very, very important Shopped: The shocking power of Britain’s supermarkets by Joanna Blythman, which also made me take stock and adjust my life.

Personal achievement of the year

Christmas Day – lunch and dinner, not least for the presentation, but also for managing to plan it effectively enough to stop it being a trial.

And realising that I can now cook a few dishes without constant recourse to a recipe. That felt like a sort of culinary coming of age.

Gadget of the year

The mandolin and the mincer attachment for my mixer are good, but it has to be my potato ricer, which is just fabulous because it makes really fabulous potato purée.

Investment of the year

After umming and erring about it for some time, I finally shelled out for some Le Creuset – and realised instantly why it was worth it.

And after mentioning it here, a number of readers told me that they wouldn’t be without it.

Quality pays off.

Ingredient discovery of the year

Lard. Simple as. After Oliver Thring’s article on the subject in the Guardian early this year, I started exploring the issue – not just of lard, but of natural fats.

And I started cooking with them too, with great results. Lard and dripping are cheaper than the over-promoted artificial, so-called ‘healthy’ fats too. Any connection, one wonders?

But honorable mentions also go to the Bath Soft Cheese Co for Bath Soft and Wyfe of Bath, plus pigeon breasts, which are an all-year pleasure, and frogs’ legs, which were a very pleasant surprise.

And I can't forget blackcurrants – but that was less a discovery and more a re-discovery, as mentioned above.

Favourite ingredient of the year

Rhubarb still rates highly. One of these days I'll manage to create something really special with it, but in the meantime, I edged closer with a number of experiments – some more successful than others – in the early part of the year

Non-eating culinary moment of the year

Meeting Raymond Blanc. Charming and passionate. I’m afraid I was close to being rendered speechless.

Not quite – but it was a close-run thing.

Food TV of the year

Masterchef: The Professionals and Service, both of which saw Michel Roux Jnr soaring in my estimation.

Thank goodness we’ve left the era of chefs having to be shouty bullies. He treated people with respect and understood the difference between objective and subjective criticism.

Both programmes were not just competitions, but were also about giving people real opportunities to develop. And his demonstrations of classic dishes on the former programme were just an education.

The former too was about real people with real talent and skill – something sadly lacking in so much so-called 'reality TV' these days.

But let’s not forget Kitchen Secrets with Raymond Blanc – educational and enormously entertaining.

Cultural surprise of the year

It came late in the year – Christmas Day – but the Disney/Pixar animated feature Ratatouille is a delight – and a big surprise, not least because it champions food as pleasure over food as fuel, and it also links memory and food.

And it’s funny and gloriously animated. The kitchen scenes are extraordinary, full stop. But the realisation of food in an animation is nothing short of astonishing.

I've been fond of animation since I was child – this brilliantly brought this together with food. A wonderful combination!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The eyes can feast too

Occasionally, a colleague and fellow foodie asks, in a manner that one knows (and is intended to know) is not really serious, whether I have ever considered applying for Masterchef.

The answer is simple: no. Not likely. And as for Come Dine With Me, that’s freak show telly to gawp at when trapped in a hotel room at night during a business stop over.

Personally, the ultra-competitive re-invention of Masterchef has never appealed to me. Even in my own pre-foodie days, I used to quite enjoy the previous incarnation with Lloyd Grossman.

It was a gentler TV, where – officially at least – the amateur cooks competing on it had no ambition to move into the professional ranks. It was, in other words, a celebration of what amateur means at its best.

Masterchef: The Professionals is a different beast altogether – but let’s leave that one for another day.

But that’s not to say that I’m not hugely competitive – albeit mostly against myself. Indeed, in my pool playing days (five or six nights a week), I was, I like to think, gracious in both victory and defeat – but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be found muttering at myself when I failed to meet the standards I’d set for myself.

And I noticed it recently in the kitchen. Maybe ‘competitive’ is too strong a word, but I enjoy testing myself, and probably set myself challenges that might seem downright bonkers to some. Come to that, I sometimes find myself wondering if they’re not downright bonkers too.

Christmas has been a case in point.

In recent months, while I’ve been practising pies and crumbles and sausages, I’ve also been trying to improve my presentation.

Now how a dish looks isn’t everything, but a feast for the eyes can add to the pleasure of a meal.

I had ideas – but was singularly failing to achieve anything that I really liked. Part of that was because drizzling isn’t as easy as you’d think, but part of it was also the crockery.

There’s a reason restaurants use big, white plates and dishes.

Our set (Argos, two-for-one for £16, if memory serves me) has been a good servant. With its colourful rims, it’s ideal for day-to-day use.

So recently, I picked up a few bits of plain, white stuff – including rectangular dishes.

In my mind’s eye were pictures. On Christmas Day, I got to see if I could recreate them.

Before I’d decided on what we would be eating in the evening, I’d planned lunch.

A little smoked salmon and smoked eel, with some horseradish and crème fraiche, salted cucumber and some good bread.

Nearer the day, that started getting embroidered a little. I didn’t sit down and think: ‘what else can I do with this?’ I simply found something would pop into my head. Like adding some pickled beetroot.

It was the same with the idea to present the fish by weaving it into a checkerboard effect. That was done the night before, before being carefully wrapped in cling film and laid in the fridge with a small weight on it.

Dozing on Christmas morning, the idea of cubing the cucumber occurred. The beetroot followed naturally – after all, this would continue a geometric theme.

Rooting in a cupboard later, I found cornichons and added one to each plate, sliced carefully and spread out concertina fashion.

There were chives in a salad drawer – a perfect garnish. A tiny dollop of caviar added some depth – as well as a further level of fishiness. Lemon – obviously – and then the horseradish-crème fraiche was kept to a minimum.

I was pleased with the flavours and the textures and the colours. But perhaps most of all, I was pleased with how it looked.

Dinner offered more opportunities.

While the consommé was served in rather downmarket style, in cups – a big hit of beefiness, though – deep, plain bowls displayed the linguine to good effect.

I couldn’t manage one single twirl each of the pasta – how do they do that? – but did manage two small ones per bowl, before adding a little virgin olive oil, some shaved white truffle and, to complete things, a garnish/seasoning of truffle fleur de sel.

The venison steaks looked simple but dramatic on plain white, with a rather cack-handed drizzle of the chocolate sauce (drizzling is another art form to work at), with the puréed sprouts (with chopped parsley) adding another touch of drama to the finished plate.

Then there was dessert. As with lunch, I’d been adding components in my mind for some time.

The three layers of a triple chocolate mousse – all based on a recipe from Michel Roux – had been prepared in advance. And thank goodness for seeing someone on Masterchef: The Professionals use a blow torch to un-ring something similar only a few days before!

You can use cling film to make a drum-tight base to a ring.

The candied citrus peel was easy enough – 10 minutes simmering in stock sugar before drying in the lowest oven for an hour or so.

I’d thought that using mandarin dust would add something too, and a search online had produced the specifics of what I supposed would be the basic approach.

That was almost a disaster, because in classic not-reading-the-instructions-properly mode, I’d managed to misread farenheit for centigrade – and then not bother to think that 200 would be far, far too hot.

I got it though – at the third time of asking.

The thinly sliced, dried fruit was then blitzed in my mini processor, with the addition of a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt, then sieved and packed away.

On the day itself, I had another idea. Well, two actually.

All ants-in-me-pants to be in the kitchen, I made up a small amount of paté sable in the afternoon, rolled it out and cut little biscuits. At the first time of asking, I burnt them. It was second time lucky on this occasion.

When it came to serving, mandarin segments were prepared to add a touch of freshness.

Chocolate swirls were something else I’d never tried. Melted dark chocolate is spread as thin as possible on a baking tray and then, once it’s set enough that the gloss has faded to matte, you gently ease curls up and away with a spatula or palette knife. Done in advance, they could go in the fridge too.

The final part of the equation was intended to be a bravura bit of drizzling with a mix of seriously thick double cream and a coffee liqueur I’d picked up in Paris.

Fortunately, I tried it out in the afternoon. The lines I wanted just weren’t going to be possible – a combination of my erratic technique with the bottle and the sauce itself not being anywhere thick enough to stop it spreading.

In the event, I settled for some almost-but-not-quite-random dots on the plate.

I’d sent The Other Half out of the room between courses: plating up took a while.

His face when he was called back in was a treat. Amazingly, it did just about all come together (the mousses were also dusted with cocoa powder). We sat and looked at them for a moment or so, barely wanting to start attacking the arrangement.

Perhaps it had been a case of watching “too much Masterchef”. But well into Boxing Day, I was still feeling chuffed with myself.

Would it have mattered if I’d just used our day-to-day crockery? Would it have been earth-shatteringly dull if I hadn’t gone a bit mad with the garnishes?

No. But then again, food is also about engaging more than just the taste buds. The eyes – and the nose – can be titivated too. ‘We need to use all our senses’ was what Raymond Blanc had emphasised to me.

One thing is certain – don’t let anyone ever tell you that the plates themselves don’t make a big difference.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Some Christmas prep and a French classic

And so we arrive at the middle of the week leading to Christmas itself; the shortest day: milder than of late, but gloomy under a leaden sky.

The biggest struggle now seems to be to stop fretting and realise that I really do have things under control.

The serious preparation began at the weekend. After three days of office jollification - including eating out twice and culminating in the annual Christmas disco (at which much hair was let down) - it was a case of back to Broadway Market and back to the kitchen.

I'd been gradually working out the festive food and, equally gradually, ordering what needs to be ordered.

Having found that, although they farm and sell veal, top-rated butcher The Ginger Pig could not supply me with veal bones, Matthew from Longwood had brought up a 2kg bag of chopped beef ones, including pieces of rib.

On Saturday afternoon, they went into the oven with some olive oil for an hour and a half - a glorious, warming smell filled the flat as they roasted – before spending close to four hours very gently simmering away with carrot, onion, celery, peppercorns and the usual herbs.

After the stock had cooled, around half was bottled and frozen. The rest - destined for consommé on Christmas Day - was then cooked down further, with the addition of some diced beef, before being strained.

Then it was time for the raft. Two beaten egg whites were added to some finely chopped carrot, celery, leek and parsley, and then slightly loosened with a ladle of the stock. This mix is added to the pot, whisked in, and left as everything is brought, very carefully, back to a simmer.

I find myself wondering who worked out this process - and how. The raft looks a mess, but it draws to it the fat in the consommé, leaving the liquid beautifully clear. Well, that's the idea.

After an hour, the raft was moved slightly to one side and the liquid strained carefully through a muslin-lined sieve. The result was remarkably clear - but two further clarifications await.

It's now in the freezer, so when I bring it out to thaw on Christmas Eve, any further fat will have risen to the top before freezing in a layer. That can be removed. And it's worth heating in a wide, shallow pan so that you can also just brush a sheet of kitchen paper over it at the end to pick up any remaining globules.

The aim is complete clarity, with very strong taste to really get the taste buds going, but nothing to fill up your diners. I did one last year for the first time - a mushroom one – and to be honest, it didn't seem to be anywhere near as difficult a task as some might make out. Although I didn't have much left to serve by the end, the intensity of the taste more than made up for it.

There are still questions: as George and Bill commented on Facebook, it can be served with a drop of booze, with finely chopped pancake or with very finely cut and cooked veg, floating like koi carp in the rich, clear liquid. I'll decide later.

In the meantime, there was everyday food to prepare.

Matthew had also jointed a chicken for me, which went into a large bowl with a bouquet garni, celery, carrot, peeled baby onions and peppercorns, plus a bottle and a half of hearty red wine that had been boiled to reduce by a third to intensify the flavour and get rid of the alcohol.

Because, with several possible recipes for coq au vin to work from, I'd chosen a Raymond Blanc one, and that last bit is typical of him.

Then it was all covered with cling film and popped into the fridge for 24 hours.

Saturday night was tuna. The fish is pan-fried simply and served with a light gravy made by reducing white wine with some chopped celery and dried chilli and dried mushrooms in it. At the end, you strain and then thicken with beurre manié.

It's a Rick Stein dish and works very well. He suggests serving with puréed garlicky potatoes, but I opted instead for the comforts of mashed carrot and swede.

Sunday's actual cook was easy: the chicken and veg were drained for an hour and then patted dry before being browned in a little olive oil. The veg followed, before a heaped tablespoon of plain flour, which had been toasted for around 15 minutes in the oven, was added too.

Then in went the marinade and it's stirred over a heat until thickened, when the meat was returned to the pot, before it went into the oven at 140˚C (fan) for about 50 minutes. The recipe had said half an hour, but the chicken pieces were large and I know my oven.

The result was very tasty, but there are things to learn. To start with, when I'd dropped the farm an email to ask for a jointed bird, I should have specified the number of pieces - five was nowhere enough. And second, I need to make the sauce a little thicker. But this is certainly a dish I'll be doing again.

Monday saw my Christmas visit to my parents, while The Other Half stayed in as work started on the kitchen.

The cold tap hasn't worked at all for years, while part of the casing of the hot tap has rotted away with limescale.

The hob was a mess too. We'd bought a new one around three years ago when we'd had to buy a new oven, but ended up in a total debacle with Curry's over fitting, and it had subsequently spent the intervening time in its box in the hall.

The hood should have been replaced then too - but the one we'd ordered had never even arrived, let alone been installed.

Moral of the story: just because John Lewis actually openly and truthfully says they can't arrange installation in your area, don't go elsewhere to buy a product on the basis that some other company claims that they can install it – and then does nothing but have you running around in circles.

And to add to the overall job, there was the small matter of lighting - just a single bulb.

So over Monday and Tuesday morning, the hob was replaced with a ceramic one, a new hood was fitted, the taps were replaced and a new light, with six adjustable spots of 50 watts each, took its place on the ceiling.

The room has been revolutionised! And now all I have to do is adjust to a hob that is around a third more subtle than the old one!

Friday, 16 December 2011

'Too much' Masterchef?

It’s apparently the case that I have been watching too much Masterchef. Now I should point out, after yesterday’s lengthy tirade against the dominance of TV in family life, that this is currently one of only a very few TV programmes that I’m watching.

Okay, there’s usually a bit of football most weeks, but other than that, in terms of programmes that I myself select, on a regular basis, there might be University Challenge and very little else.

Nor do I usually follow such competitions as this, but it has been fascinating – not least because of Michel Roux Jnr. He shows respect to all the contestants, he actually knows the difference between objective and subjective opinions – and lets the former rule his judging – and his demonstrations of various classic dishes are just fascinating and incredibly educative.

But how can I have been watching ‘too much’ of this?

Wednesday saw our department Christmas lunch. After the culinary disappointments of the last two years, at gastro pub Harrisons and then Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, I was looking forward to something rather better on the food front.

This year, we were booked into Blacks, a club in the heart of London’s Soho, courtesy of a colleague who is a member being able to book us in.

It was a very pleasant setting, with a small dining room and open fire (not real, but very convincing). There was plenty to be optimistic about.

The menu wasn’t a specifically Christmas one either, which also seemed like a good thing, since that should surely mean that the chefs would be cooking dishes that they were much more familiar with.

I opted for a squid ink tagliatelle, with Cornish crab, chilli and parsley to start.

There could have been more crab and less pasta; it could have been hot, rather than a case of the pasta being barely warm (but cooked), but it was really quite pleasant.

I’d also chosen the pheasant – another chance to continue my game education by having it properly cooked for me. But it was not to be.

My half of a bird arrived in just that condition in a bowl – to look at, that was the dish: just a rather large chunk of meat in a bowl.

A little searching revealed that there was some cavolo nero, the Italian kale, and some pancetta underneath, but the presentation was distinctly lacking.

‘Hey ho,’ I though and dug in. It was woefully overcooked and, as a result, very dry.

Even I know that the biggest difficulty with cooking game birds is keeping them moist. You need it to be a little pink – this was the colour of roast chicken.

It wasn’t helped by comparison with Sunday’s partridge at Bistrot Bruno Loubet either.

By the time a colleague on our table, who was having the same thing, had walked to the kitchen to request some gravy (she’s German, incidentally, and loathe though I am to do stereotypes, they’re bloody good at taking this sort of action), I had grown tired of it and wasn’t in the mood to eat much more.

I stuck with simple caramel ice cream for dessert, which was perfectly tasty – although presented a tad poorly again, being nothing more than the ice cream in a small dish.

A short while later, the maitre d came over and was asking him how the meal had been. I said that the starter had been nice, but also that the pheasant had been overcooked, dry and poorly presented.

He apologised – and gave me an extra glass of wine to compensate a tad.

Later, I told The Other Half what had happened. It was when I got around to mentioning that I’d criticised the presentation that he said I’d been watching too much Masterchef.

Which is not entirely fair. I didn’t expect haute cuisine along Roux lines, but it didn’t take any sort of an expert to realise how poor the presentation was.

At the simplest level, it could have been helped enormously by being jointed – as my partridge had been at the weekend – leaving the cavolo nero and pancetta instantly visible.

Personally, I’d not have served it in a bowl either, but on a plate – again making it easier to see beyond the meat.

So, Masterchef or not, I’m sticking with my critique. And I'd be prepared to wager that Michel would agree with me too.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Christmas memories come rolling back

On a forum elsewhere in the great ether, someone posted a thread about the 10 things at Christmas that take you straight back to your childhood.

In the last couple of years or so, I’ve been pushing at the door to the attic of memory to see what I can find from a past that is, in general, often really rather blurry.

Now in my own version of Proust, I’ve been specifically trying to dredge up food-related memories, and predictably, this set the cogs grinding away once more.

So here is a little selection of seasonal memories – some food related and others not – to perhaps whet your appetite and get your own memories going too.

❅ The arrival of the special double issue of theRadio Times was always something to be met with delight. Even in the days of just three channels, it heralded a lengthy and detailed study as I searched to find films that I loved and those that I'd never seen from Hollywood's golden era.

Just before Christmas itself, my mother and I would sit down and work through it more thoroughly, with a pen and paper to note down the things that the entire family would sit and watch together – because television was the centrepiece of family activity.

And after, like picking the final scraps of meat from the carcass, I’d raid it one final time, snipping out pictures and film details for a scrapbook.

❅ Turkey. I don't miss the big roast – but I do miss the sandwiches on Christmas night, when the far tastier dark meat would be packed between sliced white bread, seasoned well, and served with one of my mother's now cold stuffing balls on the side.

Most of these memories come from our time in Mossley – Christmas before then is rather vague, and even later Christmasses have only occasional concrete memories.

One of those was many years later, when my parents lived in Nottingham. It was one of the last years that the whole immediate family came together – after that, I finally found a little bit of courage to tell my parents I wouldn’t be joining them and would spend the holiday with The Other Half.

On this occasion, my mother was ill after Boxing Day and I suddenly had responsibility for feeding the family – and more to the point, for stripping the final meat from the turkey carcass, something I’d never done anything like before.

I haven’t a clue what I cooked. Perhaps that was a sort of revenge on my mother for never having bothered teach us anything in the kitchen beyond a few prep chores.

I also have vague memories of eating pheasant at Christmas in Mossley – when we'd be invited to a festive dinner by one of my father's parishoners: an elderly spinster who was, frankly, bonkers and, like more than one or two other female members of his congregations down the decades, saw her lay role in the church and her relationship with the minister as a very important part of her life.

You've seen those films where women fixate on the local priest? Well, I always had the sense that it was not far off with my father.

Memory is an odd thing. I do remember a moment from a Christmas a year or so earlier, in Reading, when we were all sat around watching telly. My father’s mother was with us.

Predictably, she was bored and didn’t want to watch whatever was on – so suddenly decided to start an entirely random conversation directed at my mother, asking her, entirely out of the blue: “Do you like tinned salmon?” before my father snapped at her to be quiet.

I suppose all of this is also why I could, quite frankly, live without a TV. Did many other families base so much of their family life around the box in the corner? Was it a particularly British thing? It seemed to have an almost sacred quality: my parents decided what we were watching – and so we all sat around and watched.

It may not have been the case, but I don’t remember there being a choice about whether to sit down and watch or not. There’s a bitter quality to the knowledge that I lost a lot of my youth just sitting there, watching things, without the bottle or the opportunity to go and do something else instead.

New Year’s Eve would be dominated by whatever end-of-year celebration was on, before my father would go outside with a piece of coal, ready to enter at the stroke of midnight.

❅ Carols. This is something I still associate particularly with school. Fairfield High School for Girls had been founded, in part, by the Moravian church, and was linked to the Moravian settlement next door. Each year, we’d have our school carol service in the church there, with Christingles, a traditional symbol of this Bohemian denomination.

Later, at Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School, the annual carol service would be held in the Priory. There’s been a church on the site from around 630AD, but the current one dates from a little later, with massive reconstruction work carried out in the early 15th century.

But such an environment always adds to the drama of an occasion – and our carol services benefitted too.

As a member of the school choirs at both schools, we'd have to sing the descant to carols – those for Hark the Herald and Come All Ye Faithful are still totally rooted in my mind.

I’d still be able to sing them today if it wasn’t that my voice has dropped over the years from a mezzo to nearer an alt: my wonderful music teacher, Noel McKee, who trained and then conducted us in those LGGS services, said I had an excellent, almost Russian middle register. I’ve never been entirely sure what that means, but it sounds good.

❅ After scouring the Radio Times there was always telly itself. From the utter boredom of the Queen’s speech, to the peerless pleasure of Morecambe & Wise. I still find the repeats hilarious – Eric was a comic genius. All he had to do was wiggle his glasses around.

The afternoon film once included the TV premiere of Oliver! – and it was love at first viewing.

Back at school, I went without lunch for a couple of weeks to save the money and buy a copy of the score, then sat down at the piano and taught myself to play using that score.

Many years later, when I was regularly penning theatre reviews, I used to write about the National Youth Theatre – indeed, I was the only hack who bothered, until Ed Wilson, the artistic director, scheduled Blitz! one year.

That had been one of composer Lionel Bart’s other shows – and suddenly, the media pack, realising that the man himself wasn’t actually dead, decided it was time to pay attention to the NYT.

Bart wasn’t doing an interviews – he might have been alive, but he was frail. But the following year, when the company revived Maggie May, Ed invited me along to the season launch, with a specific promise that he’d introduce me and that I should tell Bart the story of how I used Oliver! to learn the piano.

After that, Ed told me, I’d have him eating out of my hand and could do – informally – the interview he wasn’t going to give to anyone else. I stood there, almost gawping as he told me about going to the Maggie May after-premiere party with Judy Garland on his arm.

Remember I said I loved the golden age of Hollywood? Here I was, almost touching it.

It was Lionel Bart’s last interview.

Late on a Christmas night, there’d be a classic B&W film on BBC2. My introduction to Humphrey Bogart came in just such a fashion. I was considered old enough to stay up so late and it was The Big Sleep – still one of my favourite movies and, indeed, the subsequent inspiration for some of my O level art course work.

❅ Boredom. We’d get our presents (some of which we knew about, if we’d had the opportunity to sneak into my parents’ bedroom in the weeks preceding the day itself, and take a look on top of the wardrobe) and then have to leave them to go to church.

And then there’d be the wait for my father to actually remember he had a family – and a dinner – to come home to after he'd taken his second service of the day.

To be honest, I don’t know to what degree this actually happened every single year – but it certainly did happen some of the time, and I remember it clearly, not least for the tension of the wait, knowing that there'd be some level of row waiting when he eventually turned up.

❅ Decking the halls always reminds me of doing just that with my mother. It would often be as late as Christmas Eve and there’d be a film on.

I specifically remember Meet Me In Saint Louis being on one year while we were pegging cards to a thread before hanging it – a Judy Garland moment, note – and my father rolling in from somewhere and looking long and hard at the telly, before announcing: “It’s the Wizard of Oz”, to be met by considerable amusement.

It wasn’t bad for him really – after all, he’d clocked that it was Garland and then managed to remember the title of a film she really had appeared in.

❅ Finally, the booze. May parents would have a bottle of something like Blue Nun for Christmas dinner. My sister and I would have Woodpecker cider.

As a Cornish lad, brought up on scrumpy, my father considered it pop - and therefore entirely acceptable for his when we sat down to such a special lunch.

It was my tipple of choice for some years. At some point, my parents decided that, as a teenager, I needed a social life. So they sent me to the fortnightly disco for members’ children at the Conservative Club around the corner.

It was good fun, actually. I’d get enough money for a bottle of the aforementioned brew – but rapidly learned to change that situation by issuing staring-out challenges to random young males, with further cider as the prize.

I was rather good at it – but I don’t know what that says about me and my approach to the opposite sex. And indeed, I’m not sure I’m ready to explore that particular memory any further just yet!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

It a birthday, so it must be back to Bruno

With the combination of various work and family commitments in the last month or so, I seem to have done a lot of dining out in a whirl that's felt less like a jet-set lifestyle and more like a permanently jet-lagged one.

But when it came to my birthday, there was still only one thing I had in mind.

Our first experience of Bistrot Bruno Loubet was a year ago to the date – and we’d been back three times since, so it’s probably fair to say that it has become established as our favourite London eatery.

Although, to be rather more accurate, it's the first time in London that we've actually found a restaurant that we enjoyed enough to want to go back to, which is precisely why we've eaten out so little when at home previously.

And on Sunday, there we were again.

Contemplating an aperitif, we were sold on the idea of Bruno’s special seasonal infusion, involving Drambuie, gin and cranberry syrup, with subtle spicing.

Incredibly boozy to the nose, but surprisingly subtle to taste – and very refreshing, these were a very pleasant start to the meal.

For my starter, I opted for a ballotine of foie gras, with sour fig marmalade, a lemon glaze and green beans.

It was served not so much with toast, as with very briefly fried bread – which added a superb, light-as-a-feather texture to the dish.

The fig marmalade also provided an excellent foil for the sweetness of the foie gras, while the crunchy beans added another layer of texture.

All in all, very enjoyable indeed.

For my main course, I chose roast partridge – not least because I’ve never actually had a game bird cooked for me in a restaurant. And this is how it's done.

It had been jointed, and came with fresh choucroutte (sauerkraut), sautéed cauliflower and apple, and a cider roasting jus.

Any by gum, it was lovely. The meat was still just pink, but moist and really tasty, with a crispy skin that was also good enough to eat.

The turned, sautéed apple was delightful – as were the tiny pieces of cauliflower. And there was just a little of the choucroutte to add a further texture, while the jus was light but packed with flavour.

We took a much-needed breather after that, before deciding on dessert.

Both of us selected a “bitter chocolate slice with coffee sabayon”, which actually turned out to be less of a “slice” and more of a sort of circle of dense mouse on a light base, topped with a dusting of cocoa powder and a tuile of (I think) praline, while the sabayon sat on the side.

Delicious – rich and gorgeous, with The Other Half raving about the sabayon. And after that, he finished with coffee, while I sipped an Amaretto.

Service was, as always, charming and attentive without ever being over-fussy or formal.

Quite simply, Bistrot Bruno Loubet never disappoints.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Fusion confusion

A few weeks ago, in a moment of flighty insanity, I bought a bag of popcorn.

Not just any old popcorn, mind, but one of these trendy new ‘flavoured’ ones. Flavoured, that is, in some way other than salt or sugar.

In this case, it was a bag from a company owned by Julian Metcalfe, who founded Pret a Manger. And the flavouring in question was wasabi.


I took one piece, consumed that – and decided that that was quite enough. I’m quite happy to try things, but that was just wrong.

And then, in the French capital, I came across another potentially intriguing fusion of foods.

A book on gourmet Paris had recommended a chocolatier called Jean-Paul Hévin, who has a number of outlets in the city, including one that’s just around the corner from where we stay.

In the event, we didn’t suss out where it was until our final morning – by which time we’d found a substantial Hévin stall in Galeries Lafayette.

We bought conventional chocolates for ourselves and a box for my mother – before I spotted something that had actually been mentioned in that gourmet guide: cheese chocolates.

Yes, you really did read that correctly. These were small cubes of cheese, covered in chocolate. Me being me, I had to try. There was one small box left, so it came back to London.

What would you expect from such a combination?

One of the four cheeses that Hévin uses is Roquefort – hardly a shrinking violet on the taste and smell front.

My first response then, when I sat down to pay such a confection the time it merits, was pleasant surprise. There wasn’t such a clash as one might have expected. It was as though the chocolate muted the flavour of the cheese, which then only came through later and in a very subtle way.

But the more I thought about it, the more I started to wonder what the point of it actually is. After all, who wants a ‘subtle’ Roquefort?

Perhaps it qualifies as a sort of amuse-bouche – a single-bite appetiser to set the tastebuds tingling? But on that note, I’d suggest that it fails too, simply because it’s too subtle to really excite the palate. It manages to take two wonderful ingredients and render them less exciting than they should be.

And just because something doesn’t taste vile that still doesn’t mean that it really works.

I understand the artistic imperative – the need and desire to experiment and try new things. But I remain unconvinced about the merits of chocolate cheese.

I shall eat the rest – they are, frankly, more chocolate than cheese – and then I shall enjoy Hévin’s proper chocolates over Christmas. And some really good cheese.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Food for the soul in Paris

And so, adieu Paris – until the next time! We pulled out Gard du Nord with Sacré Cœur silhouetted on the horizon in the brittle winter sun. And as we picked up speed, La Tour Eiffel rose against the sky like a hand raised in farewell.

The Other Half describes me as a 'romantic Prussian' on occasion, but it is a romanticism that I also feel in Paris; the ghost of a past era seems to permeate the walls. It is almost within reach; almost an aroma that I can smell.

But enough of such intangibles. This was not a trip about romance - but it was (in part at least) a little pre-Christmas gourmet adventure.

We arrived on Thursday evening - too late to dine, and ready only to lounge outside La Terrasse with a glass of something and a cigarette, watching the world go by. But before that, I booked us in for the following evening at Septiéme vin, our favourite eatery in the city.

Just around the corner from where we like to stay, we visit at least once a trip. Olivier, the maitre d' and co-owner, has always been an utterly charming and generous host, making us feel more like returning friends than simply occasional customers.

It's a small place, but comfortable and warm. In the warmer months, we've enjoyed dining outside, but this was most definitely not the time for that. And with the temperature falling, winter food was on the agenda too.

The menu is, if not quite unchanging, one where you know what to expect. But on Friday's specials of the day was something I don't recall seeing there before: marrowbone gratinée. After my introduction to that ingredient in Carcassone in July, there was no question what my starter would be.

What arrived was a piece of bone, around eight inches long, halved lengthways and with a very fine topping of breadcrumbs and garlic over the marrow itself. There was toasted baguette to accompany and fleur de sel to garnish.

Scoop out the jellyish marrow onto toast and eat. This is not haute cuisine. It is not food to worry about eating elegantly. But boy, oh boy, this is the food of the gods. Sweet, with a fabulous mouth feel, and so, so satisfying.

So satisfying, in fact, that I struggled to eat all my main course of scallops with beautifully julienned vegetables and a very nice buerre blanc. It was further evidence of something I'm starting to understand: that fat - the real, natural stuff - makes you feel sated quicker than any other foodstuff.

I had a lemon sorbet to finish - although Olivier suggested having it with vodka and seemed impressed when I named that as a 'colonel'. I'd known about it for ages, but never tried it. I swear he put more booze in there than would be usual: the sorbet was nearly swimming. It's a great - hic! - combination.

The following evening, we made the error of eating at Café de Champs de Mars, just near the tower – my favourite piece of bling in the world. Now this is a fairly touristique spot on a small roundabout, but I love it: it absolutely reeks of the 19th century and 'gay Paree'. However, we had forgotten that it's fine for eating if you stick to their grills or steaks and frites, but less so if you off piste, so to speak.

We both felt like a change and opted for dishes with pasta. Neither was bad - they simply weren't much better than average.

The next night, we went back to see Olivier - with me hoping that the specials would still be the same. They were. So it was a case of the marrowbone redux.

You always worry at least a tiny bit that, on repeating something like that, it won't be as good the second time. Oh, but it was: every bit as good if not even more.

Olivier told me that they pre-cook the bone - as I understand it, in a court bouillon. Whatever they do, it's stunning.

What struck me was just how basic such a food is - how much it plays to our core. And how much the fast and junk food industries spend fortunes trying to replicate the same sort of impact with all their chemicals, additives, sugars and salts.

Now it's a very long time since, in an act of desperation driven by food deprivation, I consumed fodder from one of those such outlets, so things might have changed, but on the basis of memory, they don't come close to what I ate at the weekend.

Marrowbone has plenty to recommend it in terms of the old nose-to-tail eating philosophy alone, but ignoring that, it's a sensational food to taste. Why on each did we stop eating it and when?

If you're still interested, I followed with cod and a little rice and more of those julienned veg - I asked for a small portion, but it was still a bit too much. Y'see what I mean about being sated?

I did manage to cram a first ever taste of Iles flottante - the classic French meringue dish. I expected it to be as meringue that I've tasted has always been: hard and crisp, but it was soft and, well, sort of floppy – the result of having been poached.

But swimming in a quite delightful chilled custard, with a drizzle of caramel, it was very, very nice indeed.

Aside from the eating, there was preparing for future eating. Or put another way, shopping in the food hall at Le Bon Marché, which is an absolute joy, and saw me transformed into something like the archetypal child in a toyshop. And in the kitchen section was the biggest selection of moulds and rings I've seen anywhere outside of the catalogue of professional cooks' suppliers.

There was also a reminder of just how many top-notch chocolatiers and patisseries there are in Paris - every street has at least one of each, it seems! Even a fleeting look in the window and you're drooling like one very happy cat.

So, that was Paris in summary.

But I warn you: it may not be the last you hear of marrowbone.