Sunday, 21 December 2008

Merry Christmas

I'm not sure if I will get a chance to post between now and 27th/28th - we are off on our round-the country jaunt to try and see as many people as possible in the smallest possible time frame. I might manage the occasional tweet ( but it is unlikely if I will manage to get to a computer.

We started our celebrations last night with foie gras and truffles with home made bread followed by duck and potato dauphinoise. If the festivities continue in a similar vein I will be very, very happy indeed.

And so, all that remains to say is have a very merry Christmas, yuletide or Saturnalia (depending on your religious, or otherwise, persuasion) and get busy nomming some top class foodage. The diet can start in '09.

Friday, 19 December 2008

The Ten Greatest Albums of 2008

Regular readers of this blog (thank you all, you are wonderful people) will probably know that aside from food, music is the other great passion of my life. It is a rare occurrence when the house is silent whether I am working, cooking, writing, reading or even (occasionally) sleeping.

I even have a little widget in the sidebar (somewhere down there, see) that tells you exactly what tunes are supplementing my life at any given moment. ‘At the moment I am cooking to the sounds of…’

2008 has been a very good year in music and there have been a whole bunch of albums that have rocked my world. But in a long running game I play with a good friend, these have to be distilled right down to a hyper-concentrated top ten – a dense and chewy countdown of the best sounds of the year, the definitive aural odyssey of the last twelve months.

What does this have to do with food? Well, in my eyes food and cooking are inextricably linked. They each form key aspects of the creative process. They are about passion. They are about feeling and expression. They are about placing your soul on a plate and waiting for others to judge what you have made. They are not about TV phone ins and soul-less, ball-less, over-produced, mis-understood, exploitative, heavy-handed cover versions of Leonard Cohen songs. But anyway I digress. Here’s my top ten. Feel free to add you own.

10. Saturnalia by the Gutter Twins

9. The Evening Descends by Evangelicals

8. Dear Science by TV on the Radio

7. Only by the Night by Kings of Leon

6. Do You Like Rock Music by British Sea Power

5. Glasvegas by Glasvegas

4. Red of Tooth and Claw by Murder by Death

3. For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver

2. In The Future by Black Mountain

1. Keep Your Eyes Ahead by The Helio Sequence

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Curse of the Christmas Cake

T’was the week before Christmas and all through the house
The cook was a-stressing like a scared and trapped mouse

Right, so poetry might not be my forte but where my rhyming abilities fail me, I am supposed to be able to compensate by successfully fashioning near perfect culinary creations.

But I am increasingly starting to think I may have wronged a gypsy at some point over the last couple of years because it appears that my attempts to make Christmas cake are cursed.

For those that don’t know, a traditional Christmas cake is a dense, rich and heavy construction made from much dried fruit, butter, sugar, eggs and a little flour to bind it all together. It is flavoured, rather generously, with brandy or other tasty and strong spirit. It is almost the densest substance known to man and there is a theory that each one is a miniature black hole.

It is exactly the sort of dessert that you don’t want after eating an entire roast dinner, Christmas pudding, mince pies, stilton and far too much chocolate but if there is one thing us Brits do well it is traditions and this is one that will not be ignored. Even it often results in instant sleep and indigestion.

If you would be so kind as to accompany me on a journey back in time then I’d like to whisk you away, way back to Christmas 2006. This was the first time I attempted to make this most rich of cakes. And it was a total success. I followed Nigel Slater’s recipe from the superb book The Kitchen Diaries and everything went well. The resultant cake was moist, dark, tasty and so very good with cheese (honestly – fruit cake and cheese is a winning combo).

Fast forward to Christmas 2007. I was still residing in the family seat at this point (I use the expression metaphorically – we don’t own vast swathes of land or a country estate anywhere), living with my parents. ‘Seen as the cake was so good lat year, why don’t you make it again?’ Said my mother.

I couldn’t wait. I got to work chopping and mixing and stirring and making merry and festive in the kitchen. Once the thick dark mixture had been poured into a large cake tin I was advised to wrap it in dark paper to slow down the cooking process. Which I did. But I didn’t wrap it tightly enough and as I tried to lift it into the oven it all went a bit wrong.

‘Alex,’ said my dad in a calm voice, ‘why is the Christmas cake on the floor?’ The paper had remained in my oven-gloved hands, in a near perfect circle. The cake, however, had fallen to the floor and was rapidly leaking from its tin, spreading tide-like over the tiled floor.

Despite the mess, the mixture was (just about) salvageable and we managed to get it into the oven, relieved that nothing more had gone wrong.

My parents have an Aga at home, a wonderful and warming oven that is an absolute delight to cook on with a hot oven at the top and a cooler one at the bottom which makes slow cooking an effortless pleasure. We decided to cook the cake slowly, hoping that a good six hours would leave it moist and supremely tasty.

We were surprised, therefore, to find it the following day with a black layer on the top looking as if it had been put through a cremation oven. Eventually we found the culprit. ‘I didn’t think it was cooking,’ said my dad sheepishly. ‘I thought it would be ok for a few minutes in the hot oven.’ Not so.

After shaving the thick black layer off the cake like an overly enthusiastic archaeologist, we were left with a slightly smaller but satisfyingly tasty treat that served us well through the festive period.

And then we come to this year. I was optimistic: We had some good organic fruit, we had our own freshly laid eggs. We had a winning recipe and we had the right equipment – a brilliant Kenwood Chef machine from the 1970s that my grandmother donated to us when we moved in.

Things started well. Ingredients were measured out and weighed. The cake tin was prepared and the mixer was ready. And then it all went quite wrong and I had to make a rapid trip to the emergency surgery to get my finger checked out due to a slip with the Big Knife (it’s all OK, I shall be nail-less for some months but it’s fine).

A day later, and dosed up on super-strength painkillers, it was time to try again. I (slowly) chopped the rest of the dried fruit and gradually the mixture came together. Finally it was time to put it all into the oven to cook nice and slowly. Thinking we had plenty of time we went next door for a drink. And then had another. And another. And another.

By the time we wobbled back home, the cake (despite having been in no longer than it should, at a temperature lower than recommended) had taken on a rather black and dry appearance. I think it might, might, be shave-able but I am not holding my breath because it looks a lot worse than last year’s. Oh dear. I dread to think what misadventures Christmas Cake 2009 will bring. Perhaps some things are best left to the professionals…

Roast Chicken and Other Stories

I know I haven’t had much chance to talk about Paris – things have been a bit ker-razy since we got back.

We had some great food. Really amazing food. We had some deeply average food too but the good stuff outweighed the OK stuff by a ratio of about 4:1 so I like to concentrate on the positives.

There were a couple of occasions where we forgot to eat lunch and by the time hunger pangs and low blood sugar started to cause the onset of grumpiness, every single eatery was closed apart from Greek and Middle Eastern places that had enormous rotating elephant’s feet in the window. Doner kebab is fine, providing you have imbibed a significant amount of alcohol but at three in the afternoon it is less appealing.

I will (shamefully) admit that we resorted to falafel.

The best meal we had was probably at a tiny restaurant in Les Halles. We stumbled upon it just as the hunger was starting to cause a little tetchiness and it was a welcome site indeed. The menu was written up on a chalkboard and consisted of two choices – one of which had sold out. It was perfection.

We both had brochette d’onglet, a supremely tasty cut of meat that, although not famed for tenderness, is one of the most delicious cuts of beef I think there is. It is hard to get here but if you ask your butcher for skirt then you wouldn’t be far off. Cook it fast and hot and no more than medium rare or else you will end up with something to re-sole your shoes. What’s more, it’s cheap so perfect for these lean times.

We washed it down with a bottle of fresh Beaujolais, barely two weeks old and spent the afternoon ambling the streets in a warm and happy fuzz.

For the first half of our trip we were lucky to have the use of an apartment complete with cooking facilities which we chose to make full use of.

Like many other fellow foodies, I have something of a bee in my bonnet about chicken. We simply don’t buy intensively raised birds. They taste bad. Really bad. They are unnatural, full of a disgusting cocktails of drugs, hormones, growth promoters and antibiotics and generally lead a pretty shoddy life before they get the chop.

But we are so used to seeing these Frankenstein’s monster type birds in the supermarkets, with their wet flesh and odd proportions (thanks to selective breeding we now end up with chickens with very large breasts. When was this a good thing? Who requested this? The rest of the bird tastes much better) that when we see a proper chicken, it can seem a little strange.

But French chicken is awesome. No doubt they have some dubious farming practices as well but on the whole, quality of food is so important that even if they cared little for animal welfare, they wouldn’t stoop so low as to eat something that tasted bad. And intensively reared chicken tastes bad.

We decided to invest in a proper chicken to take home and roast. Our budget didn’t quite stretch to the famed Poulet de Bresse (although this is definitely on my list of things to eat before I die) but we bought a wonderful looking chicken from a butcher on Rue Mouffetard and took it back to the apartment.

Since cooking a chicken Thomas Keller’s way (keep it very, very simple) we’ve vowed never to try any other method. No lemons up bums, no garlic in the hold, no herbs, no butter, no oil – just salt and pepper and a hot oven. If you have great chicken you need do nothing with it, just let nature take hold and allow the ingredients to sing.

So that’s exactly what we did. Served with nothing more than bread and butter and a glass of chilled Sauvignon, it was as close to food heaven as I think it is possible to get without actually eating the gods’ own Ambrosia.

And don’t forget, you can now follow my culinary adventures on Twitter:

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

A little kitchen mishap

Today was the day I was (finally) due to make the Christmas cake. I laid out an measured all the ingredients - flour, butter, sugar, booze and a kilo of dried fruit that needed chopping.

The radio was on, the kitchen was warm and I was feeling thoroughly festive, ready to fill the house with the delicious smells of a slow baking fruit cake, dense and delicious.

And then I lost concentration, for just a second, and managed to have a little accident with a large knife. As a result I am zoned out on the strongest painkillers it is possible to swallow, in a significant amount of pain and under strict instructions from the nurse not to do any typing or cooking AT ALL for 48 hours.

To say that this has put a spanner in the works would be something of an understatement but my ability to think and come up with a witty metaphor has been shot thanks to a wonderful cocktail of pills and the inability to use one hand.

In short I'm fine. My hand hurts like nothing I've ever experienced before ('There's a reason torturers concentrate on finger nails' said the doctor. I can now see why) but everything is OK and I shall live to cook an write another day. Maybe no tomorrow but probably the day after.

Messages of sympathy are positively encouraged.

Oh, and I now have a twitter account which is more likely to be updated whilst I lie here in agony catching up on a few movies I've been meaning to watch.

Simply go to for more culinary fun in just 140 characters

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Paris, Je t'aime

‘I’ve seen at least three Ladurée bags since we got here. I think they might be clichéd,’ said my girlfriend, her tone heavy with disappointment, clearly thinking of her own small pink bag tucked away at the bottom of the suitcase.

We were at Gare du Nord waiting to board the train that would take us back to London. Back home.

‘Darling,’ I replied. ‘We watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle and light the skyline on the hour. We walked hand in hand down the Champs Elysees. We ate onglet steak in Les Halles. We took photos of the Louvre’s great glass pyramid. We drank fresh and fruity Beaujolais Nouveau. We sipped short and strong coffees in Les Deux Moulins were Amelie waitressed tables. We admired the books in Shakespeare and Co. The whole of Paris is a cliché.’

And it is. But what a glorious cliché.

Despite never visiting this wonderful city before, I couldn’t quell the feelings of familiarity that radiated from almost every street corner. Paris has inspired so many great works of artistic merit that one feels at home here even before you step into the fractured metropolis.

Books and celluloid have captured the unique feel of the city more than any other place on earth. Before Sunset, Paris, Je T’aime, Amelie, Hemingway, Orwell, and countless others have managed to, each in their own way, make permanent the fluctuating romance of the French capital.

But it is a romance that pervades still, and only becomes tangible when you see these places first hand.

The narrow streets and grand boulevards, the tiny cafés and large brasseries, the small specialist shops and grand department stores are all somehow uniquely French and quintessentially Parisian.

And each of these dichotomous elements manages to be a neat concentration of the city itself which is at once a sprawling conurbation and a collection of small, independent and unique villages.

And the food is pretty good too.

Monday, 8 December 2008

A return to the molecular kitchen

A while ago I wrote about the el Bulli Texturas kit which was (and still is) probably the best present I have ever received.

Initial experiments resulted in, erm, indeterminate results and my attempts at spherification seemed to be as successful as a Mormon monogamy pledge.

I soon discovered (ok, ok, my girlfriend discovered) that as we live in a hard water area, the algin was likely reacting with the salt we use in our water softener which was what was causing the less than successful blobs as opposed to the smooth orbs of perfection that grace the plates of restaurants that espouse such methods.

Since the initial failures, I have had little time to ponce about with edible chemicals in an attempt to create new and wonderful bursts of flavour, preferring instead to concentrate on meals that have a little more nutritional value.

Part of the problem was the, shall we say, vague nature of the book that the kit came with. I say book, but leaflet would be a more accurate description.

It simply wasn’t detailed enough.

And being somewhat limited in the understanding of chemistry I felt a little out of my depth.

Which was why I was delighted and excited and babbling like Ralph Wiggum on crystal meth when I spotted this particular tome in a Parisian bookshop.

But not just any bookshop, a bookshop dedicated entirely to food and drink and cooking and gastronomy and all things wonderful.

Although their English language section was small, there was plenty to keep me interested and I even managed to get my grubby eager paws on a copy of The Fat Duck Cookbook – the first time I’ve ever seen the silver gilded oversized bible.

But back to Librairie Gourmonde and Anne Cazor’s excellent little book, Petit Precis de Cuisine Moleculaire which explains 20 techniques (including the thus far elusive spherification) and 40 recipes to those who aren’t in possession of a lab coat, let alone a PhD in bio-chemistry.

This is swiftly going onto my Christmas list and I can’t wait to share the results come the New Year.

Oh, and Paris? It was freaking awesome. I’ll tell you about it sometime…

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Greetings from Paris

Hello from Paris. Foreboding skies have done little to quell our sense of adventure and intrigue both culturally and gastronomically. There is much to follow when we return next week but until then we must onward to Sacre Coeur, Montmarte, the Latin Quarter and a multitude of other places each equally exciting and promising stories to delight and amuse.

Stinky St. Felicien, odd boudin noirs, Laduree macaroons, much cheap wine, tasty rillettes, goose cassoulet, brochette d'onglet and beacoup du pain (bread, not physcial hurt) have been sampled thus far. Stay tuned for much, much more.