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6 posts from July 2009

31 July 2009

Forthcoming interview with Shaun Hill

Image of Shaun Hill, chef

I'm very excited to be able to say that next week I'm interviewing Shaun Hill, chef of the revered Walnut Tree. 

He's something of an icon for me.  I think of him as the father of great British food, his brothers in arms including Rowley Leigh, Alistair Little and Simon Hopkinson, his bastard children Marco Pierre White and Fergus Henderson.

Please let me know if you've got any questions you think I should ask.  The interview is taking place on Wednesday.

30 July 2009

Organic food ain't all that

For those of you that don't follow me on Twitter you won't have seen my appeal to read Tim Hayward's excellent article.  His fundamental point is that the organic movement is inherently problematic for those who care about their food.

It's a topic I've tried to address before and he deals with brilliantly.

Foodies have been turning away from the 'organic movement' for a long time now. It had to happen really. There's nothing we love more than to to get into nerdy conversations with suppliers about provenance, rearing and growing practices, and it takes no time at all to realise that caring about quality products and wanting to bring something brilliant to market have absolutely no correlation with the ability to jump through the expensive hoops necessary for an organic certification.

As an aside, I've just spotted that Seeds of Change are sponsoring Word of Mouth. Seeds of Change crows loudly on its website about its organic status, and slightly more quietly that it's owned by Mars, International.  Kudos to WoM for taking such a clear independent editorial line, not I hasten to add, that there's any reason to think it wouldn't.

27 July 2009

The Bull & Last

Thomas Friedman's Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention has been discredited, but I feel that the academic field of peace studies has a lot to learn from my contribution

I've never claimed to be a social scientist (although I am by training, but let's ignore that) so I want to revise my thesis and argue that in fact toasted cheese sandwiches are the answer to peace.  A great cheese sandwich is the apotheosis of a great civilisation. Think about what goes into it: the right bread; cheese that melts to the correct extent; cooking time - do you want bubbling or burnt cheese? and finally, condiments if any.

And I think that The Bull & Last's cheddar and spring onion toastie might just be what the world is after.  You might feel a cheese sandwich is a bit prosaic for the high-brow Silverbrow, but good places get the basics very right.

What I got was two not-quite doorsteps of toasted granary, between which was oozing cheese and onion.  Admittedly it turned up on a rather fussy wooden board that wasn't big enough to stop oniony cheese streaming onto the table, but the sandwich itself was delicious.  Maybe I'm not sufficiently inventive, but I'd never thought about combining spring onion in a toasted sandwich.  It's far from the craziest combo, nonetheless, not one I'd considered for a toasty.  And it works so well.  So well.  And the sweet pepperiness of the sandwich was nicely offset by the not-too-sweet onion pickle.

Now, although I say getting the simple things right is the sign of a great restaurant, they do sometimes get things wrong: my green beans with garlic were overcooked, tasteless and a oily.  But I'll ignore that because at the same time as delivering my very spicy tomato juice, the very sweet waitress also put on my table a jug of water WITH ICE and bread and butter.  Very cold water, bread and butter are all things that make me a happy diner.    

Oh and good ice-cream only makes things better.  I had wanted one of the cartons of chocolate ice-cream but was told I wasn't allowed them as they are for take-away only.  I had to stay on-menu.  I found this slightly odd as I was there mid-week and there was barely anyone else around, they weren't about to run out of take-away pots.  Nonetheless, I was convinced to try the Ferrero Rocher ice-cream when I was assured by the bar man that it wasn't ice-cream made from Ferrrero Rocher, but ice-cream flavours that constituted the chocolate ball (chocolate, gianduia, hazelnut nibs) and it was very good.  Someone in their kitchen is a dab hand with frozen custard.

What was supposed to be a quick working turned into a thoroughly enjoyable meal that promises a lot for bigger, better experiences.  At long last North London has a gastropub it can be proud of.

UPDATE: I had dinner here last week and it was just as good an experience as my cheese sandwich lunch.  I implore you to try the anchovy beignets if they're on the menu.  Large anchovies, deep fried in a perfectly crunchy, unsoggy batter, served with the best tartare sauce I can remember eating - a reminder that sauces should be more than an afterthought to pep-up dull ingredients.

Google Maps

The Bull & Last, 168 Highgate Road, London, NW5 1QS, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7267 3641

What others think

Giles Coren - I’ve been back and back and back. Ten, maybe 12 visits.
Dos Hermanos - The Bull and Last is an absolutely terrific gaff.
Gourmet Chick - The. Best. Chips. In. London.

20 July 2009

Ferran Adrià, author

In the past year I've been to two events where Ferran Adrià was speaking, both associated with book launches.  First promoting A Day at elBulli and more recently for Food for Thought. Thought for Food.  

According to Amazon there are three more Adrià related books due out before the end of the year: Modern Gastronomy (with a foreword by Harold McGee), he has written a foreword for the latest Maze book and he's featured in Coco, the latest in the Phaidon 10x10 series.

It seems uncontroversial to suggest that Adrià has morphed into a man of letters.  Yet I can't really find any reference to it.  Whilst there has been a lot of excitement regarding Adria's move into the art world, his appearance at Documenta 12 was the genesis of Food for Thought, no-one has attributed any significance to this urge to write.

He might be writing so prolifically because the money can't hurt and anything that extends the brand helps.  Adrià has form for such initiatives.

Then again, it could be that he feels a need to get his thoughts down on paper and it seems equally uncontroversial to say that much of what he has to say is interesting.

I'm thoroughly enjoying the Food for Thought, although I don't think it answers the question over whether food at elBulli is art, because it ties itself in knots trying to decide what art is.  It is a textbook on elBulli more than anything else.  It tries to encapsulate the history and DNA of the restaurant and therefore Adrià himself. 

I find the the photos of all the dishes ever made at elBulli from 1987 to 2007, fascinating, as are the various timelines in the book.  One shows the progression of Western haute-cuisine generally, another how techniques and recipes have developed at elBulli over the years. 

The transcripts of the roundtables with Heston Blumenthal, Carsten Holler, Adrian Searle and Bill Buford amongst others give an insight into how those with a unique perspective, chefs, authors, curators, artists, regard eating his food.  These discussions are important because whilst there may not be agreement on whether or not his food is art, it clearly is not prosaic and therefore deserves some analysis. 

In addition to the writing, Adrià has actively encouraged debate around his food.  The first of the two events I mentioned above was a full house at the Royal Festival Hall, the second was a panel discussion followed by luvvie party.  The point of both was to get the audience thinking and engaging with Ferran.

Whilst we're used to seeing our chefs on TV, or in bookstores, hardly any of them seem to engage in this way.  There are examples of chefs with blogs, or très a la mode on Twitter, but to me this doesn't count.  Compared to what Adrià seems to be doing it is marketing not education.

Adrià clearly is influenced from all around and the discussions and roundtables are another facet of his ongoing education.  It feels that the books are a way to codify what would otherwise be a jumble of ideas, discussion and snippets of knowledge.

I know I might be giving Adrià's intentions far more credit than they're due.  I know that many are sceptical about his food.  I know that his food is not for daily consumption - I've never consumed it and am unlikely to - but his ideas are important.  And books are the home for ideas. So I await his next outpourings with interest. 

I hope that other chefs and cooks start writing about their thoughts, rather than just pumping out more recipes.  Heston has come out of the blocks at a roaring pace.  But I feel very strongly that this space should not just be owned by the great culinary innovators.  I'm thinking more along the lines of the essays in Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy as an initial template.  I'd particularly relish hearing more from Shaun Hill or Rowley Leigh.  Cooks with exceptional experience of their craft (or is it art?) and who have something to add to the debate and as with any debate, will in return learn and benefit from what they hear.

15 July 2009

Banana & sour-cherry ice-cream

I first made this recipe from a combination of necessity and desire.  Necessity to use up some sour-cherries that I'd had to buy in bulk from Bea, and desire because banana and sour-cherry ice-creams are two of my favourite flavours. 

I think it was at Persicco that I was introduced to great banana ice-cream that tasted of bananas rather than nasty sweets and Matteo at Scoop got me hooked on the wonders of amarena - a fior di latte based sour cherry ice-cream. 

One change you might want to make - and I think I will next time I make it - is to roast the bananas first.  David Lebovitz does this in his book and although I wasn't keen on the consistency of his roasted-banana ice-cream, the flavour was delicious: sweet, caramel, banana gorgeousness.

Makes about 1L

  • 3 bananas
  • 250g pitted sour-cherries
  • 70g brown sugar
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 1tbp butter
  • 300ml full fat milk
  • 300ml double cream
  • 4 large egg yolks

First you need to make the sour-cherry compote.  I like to keep the compote as sour as possible, so I follow a very simple method of heating the cherries with 50g of caster sugar and a splash of water.  The cherries will gradually release juice and lose their structure.  You may want to add more sugar to taste, but remember the overall ice-cream will be relatively sweet.  Puree the compote and leave to cool thoroughly in the fridge.  You won't want it melting the ice-cream later on.

Slice the bananas, sprinkle with the brown sugar and roast them in the butter until they're brown and glistening, this can take up to 20 minutes. Mash the bananas and set aside.

Whisk together the egg yolks and 100g of caster sugar.  You want them to be light in colour, quite thick but not frothy.

Heat the milk - don't let it boil - and pour over the eggs, but be sure to keep stirring so the eggs don't curdle.

Rinse the pan you've heated the cream in. Put the custard (egg, sugar and milk) into the pan and reheat. Keep stirring it.  It's ready once it coats the back of a wooden spoon.

Let the custard cool completely.  It could take up to an hour.

Stir in the cream to the cooled mixture.

Combine the mashed bananas with the cream mixture and place in your ice-cream machine and follow your machine's instructions.

Add the cherries as you decant the ice-cream from the machine into the tub you'll be freezing it in. Layer the ice-cream with the very cold compote.  I tend to add enough compote each time so that it covers the surface of the tub, then add another layer of ice-cream and so on.

14 July 2009

Strawberry ice-cream

I always feel a twinge of guilt using great fruit in anything other than its natural state.  It feels sacrilegious to poncy up what is already pretty close to perfect.

But, a glut of very good strawberries has got me over my squeamishness, they were either going to rot away or be thrown away. What with the recent heat-wave ice-cream was the only thing to do. 

My recipe is an adaption of inspiration from a few other recipes: primarily David Lebovitz's Raspberry Ice-Cream (p93 The Perfect Scoop) and Rosemary Moon's extra-rich vanilla recipe (p21 Ice Cream Machine Book). 

For good measure, I tweaked the bastardised recipes further by chucking in a punnet of gooseberries.  I'd love to say that I alighted on the idea myself, but in truth I was watching HFW's latest series and they had a spot on strawberry jam making.  The lady (no doubt from the WI) showing Hugh how to do it, suggested using gooseberries for their sharpness, instead of the more normal addition of lemon juice - an ingredient I'd originally been planning for this ice-cream. 

This was a thoroughly delicious ice-cream, with clear, sweet strawberries being nicely offset by the sharp gooseberries and rich cream. 

I think possibly next time rather than adapting Rosemary Moon's ice-cream recipe to allow me to use up the double cream I had knocking around, I should have either gone for a straightforward custard base ice cream (fewer eggs) or a traditional gelato (no or at least little, cream). 

Finally, I made this in my Gaggia Gelatiera. It's a great piece of equipment, but I note hard to get hold of now, but there are other machines available.

Makes about 1L

  • 750g strawberries, hulled
  • 150g-200g of gooseberries, topped & tailed
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 300ml full fat milk
  • 300ml double cream
  • 6 large egg yolks

Macerate the strawberries in 100g of sugar for 1 hour.

Heat the milk but don't let it boil.

Beat the egg yolks and remaining sugar until pale and slightly thickened and pour onto the hot milk.

Return the mixture to the clean pan (to prevent the custard catching & burning), stirring continuiosuly as you heat it gently.

Once it coats the back of a spoon remove from the heat and cool.  It can take up to a couple of hours to cool thoroughly.

Stir the cream into the mixture.

Puree the strawberries and gooseberries.  If you want your ice cream totally smooth then pass the puree through a sieve.  My preference is to have the bits still in.  There may however be an argument to say you should pass the gooseberries through a sieve - and possibly peel - but not the strawberries.

At this stage it's important to make sure all the ingredients are cold, so that the ice-cream machine can churn as easily as possible.  If they're not all cold, wait for them to cool.  Combine the strawberries and the creamy custard and churn in the ice-cream machine as per your machine's instructions.

It's worth noting that in his recipe for Raspberry Ice Cream, David Lebovitz recommends that to preserve the flavour of the fruit, the ice-cream should be churned within 4 hours of making the puree.