Friday, 10 October 2014

Golf, whisky, the Highlands and a thumping hangover




There are certain perks to this writing lark and one of them is being invited on press trips. I have done a couple, but the one I went on a couple of weeks ago on behalf of the guys at The Arbuturian really was the money-shot.

Invited by the guys from Johnnie Walker Blue Label, I enjoyed a flying visit to the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, which was preceded by an evening at a modernist lodge in the remote Scottish highlands owned by a Swedish billionaire. Oh, and all transport in Scotland was by private helicopter ("roads, where we're going, we don't need roads")

Because Johnnie Walker were sponsoring the trip, the evening at the lodge was whisky themed, with a tasting session, cocktails and themed dinner to keep the assembled hacks and slebs (Anna Friel and Rupert Penry-Jones were along for the ride) entertained.

Anyway, I have said enough and you can read all about the trip and my whisky induced hangover on The Arbuturian.


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Ode to an apple




Quite a while ago now I composed an essay on apples for a writing competition. In retrospect it is perhaps not surprising that I didn't win. Nevertheless, it is English apple season and as you will read below, I love English apples. It therefore seems a good time to share it with the world...


There has to be something special about a fruit that caused the descent of man; launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium; enabled the discovery of gravity; and has given its name to devices that allow pornography to be accessed on the move. So what is so special about the apple?

It does not appear to be the most exotic of fruits, nor is it the most sensual; some might also say it is not tastiest either. But it was not the mango, the fig, the orange or even the banana that was present at these momentous moments; it was the humble apple.

The apple’s unassuming status is a shining example of that famous maxim: familiarity breeds contempt. Because if you knew how far the apple has come and the lengths to which our classical ancestors went to in order to cultivate what we now know as this domestic fruit, you would not be so dismissive.

The apple’s origins are to be found in the wilds of the Caucasus; specifically, it is the wild fruit malus pumila var mitris that is the ancestor of today’s Egremont Russets and Cox’s Orange Pippins. Small, sour and consisting mostly of inedible core, it was not the most promising of subjects for conversion. However, one of our kin must have seen something of note: perhaps it was a shepherd tending to his flock in the foothills of the Talysh Mountains (modern day Iran and Azerbaijan) who noticed one of his sheep eating these small round fruits and wondered if they would make a good addition to his meagre daily rations?

He tried one or two and found them unpalatable, but a third, plumper, with less core and more flesh than the rest, provided a small but tasty snack. And the rest is down to a couple of thousand years of careful grafting and selective breeding. Whether or not it was my fictional shepherd who was the first man to identify the malus as the grandfather of the Granny Smith, it is the Romans to whom we should really be grateful. It is they who perfected the technique of grafting cuttings from one tree onto another, without which it would have been impossible to transform those small, bullet-like orbs into the luscious and delicately scented fruits we know today.

Alan Davidson’s The Oxford Companion to Food tells us that the first description of this process appears in Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura. So when this ambitious man of provincial farming stock wasn’t making thundering speeches in the Senate and demanding the complete destruction of Rome’s mortal enemy, Carthage – Carthago delenda est – he was writing on the far more mundane subject of fruit farming. Indeed, the Romans considered the apple a luxury; to be aspired to over most other fruits; so it would be of no surprise that Cato gave instructions on the correct grafting of one type of apple tree to another- just as today’s books on horticulture advise on the best way to cultivate borlotti beans and tend crowns of asparagus.

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire did not just set back the twin causes of Western art and architecture by a thousand years- it also, in Davidson’s words, meant that apple cultivation “lapsed into disarray”. While some remnants of the Roman’s knowledge of grafting and apple nurturing remained intact, it was not until the Renaissance that Europe rediscovered these skills. Indeed, it is probable that it was the apple’s rise in popularity during this period which led to its appearance at key moments in history, such as the Judgement of Paris and man’s fall from the Garden of Eden.

Conventional wisdom states that the fruit given by Eris to Paris was a golden apple from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Hesperides; however, in the original ancient Greek, the word used for this is melon, which is a generic term for fruit rather than an apple. It is a similar story with regards to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. The Bible doesn't actually say this was an apple, but from the Renaissance onwards, depictions of Eve show her being tempted by one; just as Renaissance paintings of the Judgement of Paris show him holding an apple. So was it the apple's very ubiquity which meant that later versions of these familiar stories showed it in place of another less familiar fruit?

The apple’s prevalence is further emphasised through the names given to the newly found fruits and vegetables that made their way to Europe after the discovery of the New World. In place of something more imaginative, the French named potatoes “earth apples” or pommes de terre, while the Italians call their tomatoes “golden apples” or pomodoro. In some other European languages, German and Finnish among others, it is the etymology of the orange rather than the tomato that can be traced back to the phrase “golden apple”. 

In contrast to these mythological appearances, contemporary sources do state that Newton was partly inspired by the idea of the falling apple to think about the reason why objects always fall to the centre of the earth. In that respect therefore we can afford the apple its place at the centre of scientific history. Newton’s alma mater, Trinity College, Cambridge, even have an apple tree in their grounds which is reputed to be a descendent of the tree in question.



So the apple of myth, whether Greek, Biblical or even Norse, is a bringer of discord, but what of the more prosaic English apple: the one that we know and love - the one that inspired Newton? Anyone who has had the fortune to wander through the apple orchards of Kent on a crisp September’s day would say that there can scarcely be a more harmonious scene: the ground carpeted by windfalls; the air full of the scent of sweet and ripening fruits. Infinitely superior to its continental cousins and eaten with relish by rough handed farmers and effete city-dwellers alike, it is perfect on its own, stewed with custard, in a pie, with roast pork, or with a piece of sharp cheddar as an autumnal ploughman’s lunch.

It is this apple which I treasure, not the golden apple, bringer of eternal life and/or damnation. For there can be no more perfect fruit that a Cox's Orange Pippin, freshly scrumped and scoffed in five minutes flat before the remnants are discarded in a convenient hedge, to be fought over by the attendant field mice. In our mild climate, this is an apple that has to work just a little bit harder to ripen than its Spanish and French cousins, and, like everything in life, hard work yields results: a tastier apple, a healthier bank balance or even a healthier body.

The real emergence of the English apple that we are familiar with came in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries during the agricultural revolution, when more advanced techniques for grafting and cross-breeding were developed, to the extent that there are now estimated to be between 1,900 and 2,200 varieties of apple native to these shores. However, given the number of varieties actually available to the average consumer, one would be forgiven for thinking that figure was in the tens rather than the thousands.

The apple has only just been overtaken by ‘berries’ as the UK’s most popular fruit, but only around 35% of the apples we eat in this country are actually grown here, the rest are imported from France, Italy, Spain and New Zealand, and the UK is one of the largest importers of apples in the world. Even at the height of the English apple season, when we should all be eating home grown Ribston Pippins, Worcester Pearmains, Egremont Russets and Laxton  Superbs, it is still possible to go to a supermarket and, I regret, some greengrocers, and find the shelves full of tasteless foreign imposters. Often found lurking in a corner is a sorry pile of imported Golden Delicious, an apple which should be banned from sale under the Trades Description Act for being neither golden nor delicious. Instead it is a woolly textured, bland and boring disappointment.

Of course, the fact  is that supermarkets, like most other facets of modern society, demand a glossy uniformity as their norm. With the right variety and modern production methods, the consumer might never have to know that their apple was actually grown outside; just left to nature's whim and prone to attack by rampaging wasp, canker and Jack Frost. This year’s poor summer has resulted in a crop of smaller and uglier apples than usual, which has prompted the English apples growers’ association to launch a campaign to encourage us to choose our fruit based on taste rather than appearance.

Just a brief digression here while I illustrate this point with an anecdote: on one of these perfect autumnal days in the Kentish countryside, I had spent an extremely enjoyable afternoon wandering through the orchards, in pursuit of scrumped apples for a blackberry and apple crumble – surely the greatest pudding known to man. It was late afternoon and we found ourselves walking between a hedge and a low wooden fence. The fence served a dual purpose: to protect a large house and vineyard from us; and us from an angry dog. Just the other side of the fence, restraining his angry dog, stood an old man in a battered t-shirt and straw hat.

It being the time of year when the growers of grapes look to the skies and start to get twitchy, I asked him if he had commenced his harvest. “Not yet” he replied, “I’m going to give ‘em a few more weeks, otherwise my sparkling wine won’t be worth bottling”. Our conversation meandered along various paths, ending up on the topic of apples, and more specifically his neighbour’s orchards, from whence we’d come. The neighbour had had a contract to sell his apples to a supermarket, but when the man in the white suit came down from town to see the crop, he decided that, on reflection, the apples didn’t meet his requirements in terms of size and appearance. The contract was cancelled and apples sold for juicing at a quarter of the price. That, however, wasn’t the worst of it: the neighbour didn’t even bother to pick a whole orchard full of Russets, as with no market for them it wasn’t worth his while to pay people to do it. This, we both agreed, was a disgrace - something must be done!

As our mutual indignation faded away, he rounded off by giving me two conflicting pieces of advice: the first, to save half of everything I earn; and secondly, to “stop messing around” and marry my girlfriend. I protested that while both were technically possible, I would only ever be able to save half my income as a bachelor. As a married man, surely this could only ever be a fruitless task!

So you see, no blemish is to be allowed to see the light of day, just as it is with the models gracing the front cover of Vogue. A russet here, a wrinkle there, it doesn't matter which because it is assumed that we are no longer able to cope with these imperfections. Society has developed to the point where substance plays second fiddle to appearance, whether that is in the food we eat or the people we admire. When you can watch TV programmes on your Apple iPhone and tweet pictures of a perfectly symmetrical apple to your thousands of virtual friends, who wants to put up with a fruit that doesn’t conform to the set standard? Eating that blemished, imperfect fruit might even trouble to remind us that instead of 21st century super-consumers, we were once shepherds in the Talysh Mountains, wondering whether those small brown fruits were edible or not.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Rosé d'Anjou and an eel under a rock


Photo courtesy of Paul Winch-Furness


I believe it was the Bard who said: “a rosé by any other name would taste just as sweet...”

Ok, well maybe that’s a slight misquote, nevertheless, there is one overlooked link between the works of Shakespeare and those pink wines of summer. Not a case of what is it, but where is it? Because Anjou in the luminous Loire Valley is both home to one of Shakespeare’s most notorious characters and one of France’s best known rosés.

I can’t guarantee that it was with a glass of Rosé d’Anjou that the formidable Margaret d’Anjou, wife of Henry VI and main protagonist in three of Shakespeare’s history plays, toasted the death of her nemesis the Duke of York. But if it had been, I am sure she will not have been disappointed.

The wine in question was once the toast of the Loire and according to my sources made up 55% of local production at the end of the 1980s. However, the style of sweeter wine they were making at the time found itself, alongside shoulder pads and nouvelle cuisine, going out of fashion in the 1990s.

Evidently, the people of Anjou are making an attempt to win back their reputation for good quality rosé. Because, at a little symposium organised by Douglas Blyde on the roof of a London pub a few weeks ago, the modern Rosé d’Anjou I tasted bore no resemblance to that stuff of our collective 80s nightmare.

All of the six wines served were dry or slightly off-dry; the ideal drop to enjoy in the garden on a sunny Saturday evening. And while these are definitely wines to savour while they are in the first flush of youth, they also make a good option to accompany some of the classic dishes of the Loire – freshwater fish from the river, rillettes and rillons, and fruit de mer from the coast around Nantes.

This got me thinking: what would be the perfect dish to honour the wines of Anjou, the terroir of the Loire and Margaret d’Anjou herself? It was then that I had my eureka moment, as a French phrase popped into my head – il y a anguille sous roche. Loosely translated as “there’s an eel under the rock”, it is the French version of “cripes, there’s something fishy going on”.

Not only is this quite an apt phrase with crafty old Margaret in mind, eels are also a classic part of the cuisine of Loire, so make a natural bedfellow for the rosé wines of Anjou. Usually stewed in red wine, my own recipe (which is also a tribute to James Hamilton-Paterson’s classic book Cooking with Fernet Branca) turns them into tasty little hors d’oeuvres, with the eels hiding themselves from the diner under a savoury little rock bun (hence the name!). They would be perfect to have on the terrace before dinner: glass of vino in one hand, anguille sous roche in the other.

Anguille sous Roche

1 eel from the Loire, skinned and cut into 5cm chunks
1 bottle Rosé D’Anjou
1 bouquet-garni (thyme, bay, parsley stalks tied up into a little parcel)
1 onion, sliced
1 carrot, sliced
5 peppercorns
225g self-raising flour
110g butter
1 egg, lightly whisked
1 crottin de Chavignol (the Loire’s famous goats cheese)
Salt and pepper
A splash of milk, plus more to glaze

This recipe really falls into two distinct sections, which can be spaced apart by up to a day if you like. The first job is to poach the eel in a court bouillon, which is as easy as kiss my hand. Simply combine the wine, bouquet-garni, onion, carrot and peppercorns in a large pot and bring to a gentle simmer. Turn down the heat, add the pieces of eel, cover and leave to cook gently for ten to fifteen minutes, or until the eel is cooked through. Take the pot off the heat and leave the eel to cool in the liquid, before removing and flaking gently.

When you are ready to proceed with the second half of the recipe, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the flaked eel, before crumbling in the cheese and season with a small amount of salt and plenty of pepper. Then, make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and add the egg and that splash of milk. Stir gently to combine the ingredients into a workable dough, adding more milk if it is too dry. Then divide into little bitesize morsels – using two teaspoons is a good method – and place onto a baking tray. Brush with a little milk to glaze and then bake in the oven at 180 Celsius for 15 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through.

Leave to cool slightly before serving with a glass of, you guessed it, Rosé d’Anjou.


Who could resist the killer combination of eel and rock bun?


By the way if you want a couple of named examples of said wine, two I made a note of were the Champteloup Rosé d’Anjou 2013, which is available for £7.99 from Waitrose, and the La Grille Rosé d’Anjou Gwenael Guihard 2013, which is available for £8.49 from Majestic Wines. Forced to choose, I’d go for the latter...santé!


One of me just to prove I was there enjoying the wine! Also courtesy of Paul Winch-Furness


Sunday, 8 June 2014

Tom on tour - North Yorkshire Moors and the Raithwaite Estate

Whitby Abbey

A while back I whisked VD away for a weekend away in the North Yorkshire Moors. Staying at a 'grand country retreat' (their words, not mine) called the Raithwaite Estate, we had a fun couple of days eating fish and chips, enjoying walks on the beach and exploring the ruins of Whitby Abbey.

You can read all about it here on The Arbuturian...


Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Ranelagh Kitchen Diaries. Part 7: Caravan



Part seven of the Ranelagh Kitchen Diaries takes us on a journey to distant King's Cross and a pre-train dinner at Caravan... 

You will probably know this already, but Caravan, ironically, given the naff connotations, is a bit of a hip hangout next to the new St Martin's College building on Granary Square. It is just a short hop from King's Cross St Pancras and, thus, was chosen as the venue for a pre-bank holiday getaway dinner. It's firmly part of the urban regeneration that has rediscovered this formerly forgotten part of town and put it back on the map of 'civilised' London.

Mind you, the way things are going there won't be anywhere left that's uncivilised soon. It'll just be the District Line on Saturdays when Chelsea are at home and Hoxton Square on Saturday nights when the bridge and tunnel crowd are in town and up for a good time. 

Anyway, Caravan is a bit hip, in a New York, meat-packing district, exposed brick, open kitchen kind of a way. And as you might expect, given the ambience and location (close to the Grauniad's offices) there were plenty of media douchebags on offer: the type of middle aged guys with shaved heads, beards, expensive denim turned up at the ankle and chunky boots who have jobs like Chief Innovation Officer and Head of Digital Content Strategy. 

The menu is split into various sections and has disparate culinary influences: some burrata here, a spot of babaganoush there, some seabass ceviche for exiled Peruvians, chopped chicken livers for the Ashkenazi amongst us and a plate of grits for the hillbillies.

From this global arsenal of fine food, we ordered corn bread; some mahon cheese with a Pedro Ximenez (PX to those of us in the know) reduction; an heirloom tomato and chick-pea salad; and pizza with nduja and scarmorza. The scarmoza might have been smoked, I can't remember though - if so it was Marlborough Lights and not Regal Super Kings.

The mahon cheese was pleasant, as well made cheese tends to be, but too expensive at £5.50 for a mouse-sized portion. The cornbread was good in a cakey, corny kind of a way and they'd even included some real kernels of corn just to show that it really was cornbread and not some yellow dyed imposter. £4.50 for two small pieces had me clutching at my wallet though.

As pretty as it was, the tomato salad failed to make an impact: eating under-ripe tomatoes with a mound of mealy chick-peas of the type that emerge from a can of brine does not a pleasant experience make.


The pizza was better and generously apportioned with scarlet puddles of molten nduja and plenty of the scarmorza. The base wasn't up to much and reminded me slightly of those biscuity, pre-made ones you get from the supermarket, but that didn't matter too much with the quality of the topping. 

The savouries polished off and plenty of time until our train, VD further indulged her monster appetite with an affogato, which was, to quote, "very enjoyable". Indeed, my macchiato confirmed that the best thing about Caravan, apart from the relatively reasonable £4.50 for a pint of Camden Pale Ale, is probably the coffee. 

I enjoyed it more than any cup of the black stuff I can remember for a good while. That includes the flat white I had the other day at Kaffeine when the fire alarm went off at work and I had 15 minutes to kill trying not to get caught up in conversation with the office bores. 

What's the moral of this story then? Pizza, beer and coffee! Don't bother with anything else unless cost is no barrier to enjoyment and then fill your boots. I dare say you'll find more to like than not.




Caravan, 1 Granary Square, London, N1C 4AA

020 7101 7661

Open Monday to Saturday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sundays 10am - 4pm

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Ranelagh Kitchen Diaries - part 6: The Guinea Fowl



I have learned a couple of things this week, which I think it only right to share with my small, but loyal readership:
  1. Rosa's Thai Cafe serves mediocre, overpriced food and is now on my notorious blacklist (alongside Ping Pong, Carluccios and various other crappy chains).  
  2. Entering the Viking exhibition at the British Museum on a Saturday morning is rather like being thrust in to the black hole of Calcutta: a mass of writhing bodies, poor ventilation and an unseasonably warm spring day combined to make it less of an experience to remember. You'd be much better off leaving the Vikings to the tourists and heading upstairs to the Roman and Anglo Saxon galleries, where the exhibits are equally magnificent but the crowds fewer.
  3. The bacon flavoured ale from Brodies Beers (tried at the Old Coffee House on Beak Street) is like drinking liquidised bacon fries - a bridge too far in the endless quest to put bacon in every foodstuff. 
  4. I remembered why I used to spend all that time at Borough Market on a weekend. I returned for the first time in two or three years last Saturday (the parents were in town and keen for a visit). Yes, it is expensive and crowded, and the real foodie connoisseurs head to Maltby Street or somewhere similarly trendy, but there isn't anywhere else in London where there is such a critical mass of good food. My tip is to go at the end of the day when prices start to drop and take full advantage. 
With mother in residence for the weekend, the market proved a decent hunting ground for ingredients for a Mother's Day meal. Mrs L is partial to a guinea fowl, so one of those ended up in my bag of swag, as did a handful of morels which caught the eye. At something like £80 per kilo they are not cheap, but a little goes a long way and ours cost less than a fiver. Finally, a bunch of tarragon finished off this holy trinity.



With these three ingredients, our Sunday lunch almost chose itself...

Roast Guinea Fowl with Morel and Tarragon Sauce

Serves four hungry lunchers

1 Guinea Fowl, c. 1.2kg
15-20 morels, cleaned and halved - I also used the same amount of chestnut mushrooms to bulk things out a bit
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
100ml white wine (optional)
250ml chicken stock
100ml double cream
1 tsp dijon mustard
3 tblsp chopped tarragon
juice of half a lemon (optional)
25g butter, plus extra for the guinea fowl
olive oil
salt and pepper
  1. Heat the oven to 220c. While it is heating up, prepare the guinea fowl. Season inside and out with plenty of salt and pepper and massage some olive oil in to the breast and legs. You can also rub some butter into the fowl's flesh as well if you like - I do.
  2. Place the bird in to the oven at 220C for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 160c and roast for another 30-35 minutes, or until the juices from the leg run clear when you insert a skewer. Once the fowl is cooked, take it out of the oven, cover with foil and leave to rest for ten minutes.
  3. While the fowl is cooking, you can deal with the accompanying sauce. In a non-stick frying pan over a low heat, melt 25g of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil, then add the garlic and cook gently until softened.
  4. When the garlic has softened add the mushrooms to the pan, turn up the heat slightly and fry until they start to release their juices! Keep cooking until the juices have evaporated, then add the wine (if using) and reduce until there is a scant tablespoonful or two of liquid in the pan.
  5. When the wine has reduced, add the stock and cream, lower the heat to a brisk simmer and leave uncovered to cook for ten minutes. If it looks like it is reducing too much, lower the heat, or you can always add some more stock to achieve the desired consistency - a smooth and velvety sauce.
  6. When the guinea fowl is out of the oven you can finish off the sauce by adding the mustard, tarragon, lemon juice, the juices from the rested bird and season with salt and pepper. I like the lemon juice as it is quite a rich sauce and the acidity lightens it slightly, but the amount you add is up to you.
  7. To serve, I jointed the guinea fowl into 10 pieces (two thighs, two drumsticks, the breasts into four and two wings), put it into a warmed serving dish and poured the sauce over the top. On this occasion the guinea fowl came with a bowl of boiled new potatoes and some purple sprouting broccoli.  



Suffice to say, Mother was impressed!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Ranelagh Kitchen Diaries - part five



Hi there blog watchers. I guess it is time to issue probably my fiftieth apology for a lengthy gap between this post and the last. All the usual excuses apply: busy at work, hectic social schedule and a two week holiday in Vancouver and Whistler for a spot of sightseeing and skiing.

This was a big trip for me as the last time I was in that neck of the woods I almost managed to write myself off permanently via a pretty catastrophic ski accident. Two operations, five days in the ICU, five weeks in hospital and almost a year later I was back to myself again, but liver lacerations, a duodenal tear and a jejunal perforation are not to be recommended!

Despite this, I have had no problems getting back on skis again and long time readers will note that the origins of the blog lie in my return, bored and depressed from a ski season in Val d'Isere. Consequently, when the chance came to extend my stay in Canada and spend a couple of days cat-skiing at a remote lodge three hours north of Whistler, I jumped.

Anyway, the full story of that trip is one I am hoping to have published elsewhere, so why am I telling you about it here? Obviously there was also something there that piqued the foodie as well as the wannabe pro-skier, gnarlster in me...

What was it? Why, the pancakes served up at breakfast of course! I am not going to launch in to some sort of rant about how they do breakfast better the other side of the pond and, if you recall a previous post,  I am not a fan of going out for breakfast anyway. But as an occasional treat, the combination of thick, fluffy pancakes, salty, crisp bacon and lashings of maple syrup is hard to beat.

So when I was in depths of post-holiday depression on Saturday morning (somewhere I remain), it was to pancakes, bacon and some Vancouver Airport, duty-free maple syrup that I turned to lift my spirits.

On their own, this holy trinity work damn well together, but it was the addition of some sauteed slices of apple that lifted this particular breakfast from average diner fare to something slightly more impressive. Of course, apple and pork are natural bedfellows, so it is not so surprising that the apple combined so well with everything else to make a very tasty menage a quatre.

Make these pancakes to cheer yourself up; make them to cheer someone else up; or make them just for the hell of it!

Pancakes with bacon, apple and maple syrup

Makes 10-12 pancakes, so enough for four breakfasters

125g plain flour
125ml milk
1 egg
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp caster sugar
pinch sugar
30g melted butter plus more butter for frying the pancakes and apple
3 dessert apples, cut into eighths
8-12 rashers of bacon, back or streaky depending on your preference

Pre-heat the oven to 200C, gas 6

  1. Lay the bacon out on a baking tray and put in to the pre-heated oven to cook for 15 minutes, or until nice and crisp (streaky will take less time than back).
  2. Sift together the dry ingredients in a large bowl and combine the milk, egg and melted butter in another bowl or jug.
  3. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, then add the milk etc. and whisk vigorously to combine into a thick, lump-free batter.
  4. Leave the batter to stand while you turn your attention to the apples. Melt approximately 25g butter in a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and add the apple slices when the butter is foaming. Gently fry the apple slices until they are lightly caramelised on the outside and are soft all the way through.
  5. Remove the apples from the pan and leave in a warm place until ready to serve.
  6. Now return the frying pan to the heat and add more butter if necessary to lubricate the pancakes while they cook. When the butter has melted, add the batter to the pan. If you are using a large frying pan you should be able to make three at a time - mine were about the circumference of a teacup, but make them as big or small as you like.
  7. When bubbles start to appear on the uncooked side of the pancake, flip them and cook until they are golden brown on both sides. Now remove the pancakes and keep the in the same warm place where you left the apples until ready.
  8. Repeat these steps until the mixture is all used up and you have a steaming pile of fluffy pancakes ready for the table.
  9. To serve, I laid my bacon on the plate, then alternated pancakes and slices of sauteed apple, so that there were three layers of each and then drizzled maple syrup over the whole lot. 




After that, you can either go out and slay some killer lines in the backcountry powder, or get a lift down to Tunbridge Wells for your friend Phil's 30th birthday. Guess which one I actually did on Saturday? Clue - it wasn't this...

Photo courtesy of Ryan Davison Crisp 

P.S. Don't worry if there's only a couple of you for brekkie - make the same amount of batter as it will happily stay in the fridge for a couple of days, supplying you with more pancakes for breakfasts or dinner time desserts.


Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Ranelagh Kitchen Diaries - part four



Ok, I know it is getting late in the day for marmalade recipes, but I made a big batch of my own marmalade over the weekend and it is, if I do say so myself, bloody fantastic stuff. Never mind Fosters, this stuff is the real amber nectar. Moreover, with the addition of a hearty slug of bourbon, if you eat enough of it, it might even have the same effect as a couple of tinnies.

Usually, I would launch in to some diatribe about how making your own preserves isn't actually an activity just for aged spinsters and something for hip young dudes as well. In this case though I think I would be fighting a losing battle. Marmalade isn't cool and lets face it, neither is marmalade making. But I don't care. I find it both a very satisfying and very relaxing way to spend a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. So ignore the naysayers and crack on because the Seville oranges won't be around for much longer (I was at the shops earlier and they still had plenty in though).




The recipe is easy, but does require a lot of juicing and chopping. I used my food mixer to juice the oranges, which was a real time saver, but if you don't have one a normal juicer or even a fork and a bit of elbow grease will do fine. Similarly, it might be tempting to use a food processor to chop the peel, but it is much better done by hand and if you have a sharp knife isn't too onerous.


Seville orange and bourbon marmalade

1kg Seville Oranges
1 lemon
1kg golden caster sugar
1kg soft light brown sugar
2.5 litres water
100ml bourbon or any other type of whisk(e)y

You will also need a very large saucepan, a piece of muslin or an old sock and at least seven or eight washed and sterilised jam jars.

  1. Get to work on the oranges, halving and juicing them in to a bowl. You want to reserve all the pips and pith and any other pieces of flesh in a second bowl and keep your bowl of juice free from all this detritus. Do the same for the solitary lemon too.
  2. Then comes the chopping. You need to slice all the orange halves into thin strips. These will end up being the nice juicy pieces of orange peel that liven up your marmalade of a morning, so the thickness of your strips depends on how thick you like them on your toast.
  3. Add the juice and the sliced peel to your large saucepan, cover with the cold water and bring to the boil. While the water is coming up to the boil put all the reserved pith, seeds and flesh into a piece of muslin, or if like me you don't have some muslin hanging around, use an old sport sock. Then tie up the ends to create a little parcel of pith and add this to the juice and peel.
  4. When the mix has come to the boil lower the heat and leave to simmer gently for approximately two hours. After the time has elapsed check that the peel is completely soft and cooked through then remove the bag of pith and leave to cool for ten minutes.
  5. At this point you can leave the marmalade overnight before moving on to step six. This is useful if you have a rugby match to watch like I did.
  6. When the bag of muslin is cool enough to handle grab it a give it a bloody good squeeze over the marmalade mixture. You want to get as much of the gooey gloopy stuff out of the bag as possible as the goo contains the pectin necessary to set the marmalade.
  7. Now bring the mix up to a simmer, add the sugar and stir thoroughly until the sugar has completely dissolved into the nascent marmalade. It is important that it does dissolve fully, so don't skimp on the stirring. Also put a couple of saucers into the freezer to chill.
  8. Now turn the heat up under the marmalade, bring to a rolling boil and leave to cook rapidly for at least fifteen minutes. This is to get the marmalade up to the setting point. For me this was a temperature of 109C, but start checking when the marmalade reaches 104C. If you don't have a temperature probe just start testing it after the 15 minutes.
  9. The best way to test if the marmalade has reached setting point is to put a teaspoon of the mix on one of the cold saucers and put in the fridge for a minute. The take it out and run your finger through the mix. If it crinkles, has formed a bit of a skin and your finger leaves a gap through the mix then it is ready, if not, let the mixture cook for another five minutes and try again. It might take up to half an hour, so be patient and don't be tempted to take it off the heat too soon or your marmalade won't set in the jars.
  10. When setting point has been reached, take the marmalade off the boil and leave to cool for 15 minutes, then pour in the bourbon and mix. Finally get the marmalade into the sterilised jars and seal.
It sounds like quite a lot of work, but everything is spread out over a couple of hours and the only sustained periods of action are at the start and the end. In any case, the whole process is thoroughly worthwhile and I've already worked my way through one jar and am on to my second.





A loaf of white on rye

If you saw part three of the kitchen diaries you will have read something along the lines of: I don't eat white bread and don't intend on making any bread with white flour. Well to be frank, that was bollocks and I did make a white boule seasoned with a smattering of rye flour last weekend. Moreover it was possibly the best loaf I have made yet. Proof that you shouldn't believe anything I write (maybe!).

Anyway, the method is almost exactly the same as the one in the previous post, but instead of the flour mix I suggest there use 400g strong white flour and 100g rye flour. Then instead of putting the loaf into a tin to prove, shape it into a sort of hemisphere or boule shape instead (see photo below). After the prove, slash the top a couple of times with a sharp knife and put it in the oven to cook for 35-40 minutes. Perfect toasted with butter and a good dollop of that bourbon marmalade.







Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Ranelagh Kitchen Diaries - part three


A rye and spelt loaf!

God, isn't the weather so unremittingly shit at the moment. Every time I think I should get out on my bike for a bit of exercise I see a torrent of leaves rush past the door being chased by a squally rain shower. Thus, I close the door and return to the chocolate digestives and season five of Friday Night Lights (best TV show ever made - and that includes The Wire).

Ideal conditions you might think for spending extended periods of time in the kitchen, indulging in my second favourite activity outside the bedroom. Speaking of which, I have just returned from a couple of days skiing (my favourite activity outside the bedroom) in Courmayeur, where I had some really excellent food. If you are ever there I heartily recommend going to Maison Vielle for lunch - apparently it is one of Heston Blumenthal's favourite places, so don't just take my word for it.

Anyway, less skiing and more food because I have promised you my finalised bread recipe and it is just about ready for public view...

I have been making bread once or twice a week since Christmas and can see why people can become obsessed with it. It can be both immensely satisfying and immensely frustrating at the same time. I can't pretend that every loaf of bread I have made has been a success, indeed at least one rye and spelt loaf has ended up in the bin because of a series of cock-ups.

But when it does all work out, I really do feel a warm glow of achievement that few other kitchen-related activities can provide. Moreover, the bread is much better for you and tastes great - nicer than anything other than the best quality commercially-made loaves.

There are all manner of different methods for making bread and I have tried quite a few, but the best results I achieved were using the most traditional one, i.e. knead, rise, knock-back, prove and bake. So this is the method I am going to recommend below.

I decided not to bother making white bread, because I tend not to eat it anyway and if I am going to bake my own bread I want it to be as healthy as possible. Thinking about other types of flour, I have tried wholemeal, spelt and rye in varying quantities. Of these, my favourites have been a rye and spelt combo and the spelt only loaf. Baking with these flours isn't as straightforward as using plain flour, but the flavours you get are more complex and it is worth persevering with.

There you have it, follow the recipe below and you should emerge with a pretty decent looking rye and spelt loaf. Perfect for toasting, sandwiches and whatever other bread-related activities you indulge in.


Rye and spelt loaf

200g rye flour
200g spelt flour
130g strong white flour
7g instant yeast
10g fine grained salt
2 dessert spoons caster sugar
1/2 vitamin C tablet, ground into a powder (this is a baker's trick to stop the bread being too heavy)
300ml lukewarm water
a neutral tasting oil, e.g. rape or sunflower

You will also need a standard 2 lb loaf tin

  1. Start off by combining the warm water, yeast and sugar in a warmed mixing bowl large enough to take all the flour. Stir until the sugar and yeast have dissolved in to the water. Now add the flour, vitamin C and salt, and stir until the flour and water have combined into a sticky dough.  
  2. Pour a small amount of oil onto a clean work surface and at the same time grease up your palms too. This is so the dough doesn't stick to you while you knead it. Then turn the dough out on to the oiled surface and knead it for as long as you can manage - seven to ten minutes should suffice. The purpose of the kneading is to stretch the gluten strands in the flour and make them all elastic and bouncy.* 
  3. After the knead you are ready for the second stage of my process - the rise. Roll the dough into a ball, place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with cling film, a tea-towel or plastic bag and leave in a warm place to rise for at least an hour. Ideally you would leave it a bit longer though.
  4. When it has risen and more or less doubled in size, turn the dough out onto a work surface, give it a bit of a bash to expel the air out of the dough and knead very briefly. This is called knocking-back. Then shape the dough into a rectangle the width of your loaf tin and roll tightly, as if you were making a Swiss roll. Now put the bread into the loaf tin, seam side down, cover again and leave in a warm place to prove. While the bread is proving heat the oven to as hot as it will go  and ideally heat up a sturdy baking tray in there too (this helps the bread cook from the bottom up as well).
  5. Proving is just another name for the bread rising for a second time, which is easy enough. But the key is to catch the dough at the right time to put in the oven. Too short a time and it will turn out all doughy and too long a time and the bread will collapse when it is baking or when you take it out of the oven. The best way to do this is via the "prod-method". If you poke the dough and it springs back straight-away it needs a bit longer. If you poke it and it stays poked, it has proved for too long. Ideally, when prodded, the dough will spring back slowly to its original position. As is often the case, you want the happy medium.
  6. When the happy medium has been reached place the bread on the pre-heated baking tray and place on the middle shelf in the hot oven. Leave it at max temperature for 20 minutes, then turn the heat down to 210c and cook for another 20 minutes.
  7. There are a couple of ways to check if the bread is ready. The old fashioned method is to tap the bottom and if it sounds hollow it is ready. This is a bit imprecise though, so you can also use a temperature probe as well. Insert the probe in to the middle of the bread and if the internal temperature has reached 90c it should be done.
  8. Take the bread out of the oven a leave to cool on a rack before cutting in to it. If you do cut in to it while it is warm you will let all the steam escape and the texture of the crumb can change.
That, folks, is it. Don't be too disheartened if your loaf doesn't turn out perfect the first, or indeed, every time. Persevere, because bread-making is well worth your time and effort, even if the supermarket loaf is just a short stroll away.

Stage three - pre-rise

Another one of the finished article

* n.b. There is another kneading method that I have had some success with. This involves a series of three or four very short kneads (15 seconds) punctuated by 10 minutes intervals when you let the dough rest, before finally leaving the dough to rise properly. This method can be substituted happily for the more traditional one mentioned in stage 2 if you fancy experimenting.


Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Ranelagh Kitchen Diaries - part two



Haha, I bet you thought that my kitchen diaries idea was going to fall on its arse after just one week. But no, my efforts have extended themselves into week two. Week three is another matter of course, but we can cross that particular rope bridge when we get to it.

So, what have I been up to food wise this week? I made two more loaves of bread, both wholemeal, both using a similar rest-knead-rest method that is recommended by Dan Lepard - the well regarded baker, who writes for the Guardian and is a presenter on the Aussie version of The Great British Bake Off (the Great Aussie Bake Off?). Neither of these loaves were quite perfect, so I am going to continue adjusting the recipe to my own tastes before sharing it here.

By the way, if you think bread making is a bridge too far for all but the keenest of keen home cooks. Don't. I know that food writers bang on how simple their recipes are, before setting out some absurdly lengthy and complicated instructions for their version of a Shepherd's Pie, but I have made four loaves in the last ten days and it really isn't that time consuming or technically difficult.

There is also something absurdly satisfying about baking bread: it feels like much more of a primal act than any other cooking you will do. I imagined myself a horny handed medieval peasant, crafting a loaf to bake over a turf fire for my wife and fifteen children.

That's enough of the bread though, because you will have to wait a week or two for my perfect recipe for a wholemeal loaf.

Saturday 11th January

This entry is something of a cheat as it doesn't concern my own cooking. I've actually made the landmark decision to feature a guest chef on the blog. Who is this guest chef? None other than VD's buddy, the half-Uruguyuan, wannabe sustainability consultant, LP. Or to give her proper name - Pinhead.

Feijoada is Brazil's national dish: it's a real ribsticker of stew made with pork, various types of sausage, beef and beans. Pinhead might not be Brazilian, but she is from that neck of the woods and is a very good cook. So I had lots of faith in her and was very much looking forward to Saturday's dinner, when she had promised to unceremoniously snatch my feijoada v-plates.

I am not going to recite her recipe, partly because I didn't actually cook it and partly it seems like a lot of bloody effort to type it out when there a plenty of them just one click away. Anyway, as she was cooking for a famous food writer, Pinhead had gone to a lot of trouble, with a trip to the Brazilian supermarket in Ladbroke Grove to purchase the necessary foodstuffs, as well as a bottle of cahaca for the all important caiprinhas.

Suffice to say, with all this preparation, the feijoada was a triumph. The meat was tender, the stew richly flavoured and unctuous, and the beans perfectly cooked. In Brazil they serve it with rice, kale, toasted manioc flour, and fresh orange slices. And so that is how we ate it.

The stew is so rich that the orange is an inspired addition: it refreshes you in-between mouthfuls and prepares the palate for second or even third helpings. Despite having a large first helping, I did indeed dive in for seconds and had to stop myself from going in for thirds. Evidently this surfeit of feijoada sent me to sleep though and after dinner I ended up dozing on the sofa, dreaming of England's triumph in the summer's World Cup in Brazil.

Indeed, with our attentions turning to Brazil this year, I imagine they'll be plenty of people peddling Brazillian specialities around the place; telling you to get into the samba spirit with lashings of feijoada and cahaca-based cocktails. Just remember you heard it here first!


Pinhead's Feijoada


Tuesday 14th January

Aside from eating feijoada, this week I've mostly been experimenting with various combinations of brassicas and pasta (there's something I'd never thought I'd write!). Trying to find a tasty but thrifty midweek recipe using these two ingredients. There was a penne with savoy cabbage and pine nuts that was decent, but perhaps not the most exciting thing I've ever eaten. I made another attempt with some kale, garlic and spaghetti a couple of days later, which to be honest was a bit crap.

However, on Tuesday night I absolutely hit the jackpot with a plate of penne with purple sprouting broccoli, anchovy, garlic, chilli, a drop of cream and sprinkling of breadcrumbs (a pangrattato no less).

I know it is early for purple sprouting broccoli, but I picked up some nice looking stuff at the local Farmer's Market on Sunday. I also grabbed some Jerusalem artichokes, but haven't had the time or inclination to do anything with them yet. I thought about a tart, but you will have to wait until next week's post for an artichoke update.

This pasta dish is one of the best I can remember eating for a while, so please have a crack at it. Thrifty, warming and perfect for January.

Penne with purple sprouting broccoli, anchovy and cream

Serves 2

200g penne
6-8 florets of purple sprouting broccoli, trimmed and cut into three of four bite-size pieces
6 anchovy fillets
3 cloves garlic
1 red chilli finely sliced or 1 tsp dried red chilli flakes
4 tblsp double cream
Parmesan or similar Italian hard cheese (I used Grana Padano)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the pangrattato (optional)

2 slices bread
olive oil
Parmesan cheese or similar

  1. Put the pasta on to boil. In the ten minutes it will take to cook you should be able to knock up the sauce. If you worry about your ability to get everything done in time, start with the sauce and put the pasta on when you're halfway through making it. It will happily keep warm for a few minutes.
  2. For the sauce, add two to three tablespoons of olive oil to a shallow frying pan over a medium heat and then add the anchovy, garlic and chilli. Fry for a couple of minutes until the garlic has softened and the anchovy started to dissolve into the oil. Then add the broccoli, stir and leave to cook over a low heat until just before the pasta is ready.
  3. Just before you drain the pasta, add the cream and a ladleful of the cooking water from the pasta to the broccoli and stir well. Then add the drained pasta to the sauce and give the whole lot a good stir and leave for a minute or so over a low heat, by which time the sauce and penne will be well combined. Then grate over a load of the parmesan cheese and serve with the pangrattato (if using).
For the pangrattto cube the bread, put in a bowl, pour over a spoonful of olive and oil and grate some parmesan over the top. Then mix, put on a baking tray and stick it an oven heated to 200C for about ten minutes. When the bread has thoroughly crisped up, take it out, leave for a couple of minutes to cool, then grind up using a pestle and mortar or food processor. Don't do this too thoroughly though: you want a coarse crumb.


A feast in brown!


And that is it for this week. I made the mistake of going into the Ginger Pig (posh butchers) off Marylebone High Street on Friday and spent quite a lot of money on beef, so there might be a recipe featuring beef short ribs next time around, then again there might not! You'll have to wait and see...