Thursday 13 October 2016

Book Review: Shaun Hill, Salt is Essential and Pierre Koffmann, Classic Koffmann

These two books arrived today, representing a combined 100 years of cheffing.

I commend to anyone interested in food the new book by Shaun Hill: Salt is Essential and other things I have learned from 50 years at the stove.

I intended to quickly skim through them both, but I couldn't put down Salt is Essential and ended up reading it from cover to cover.  It is pleasantly discursive and full of bons mots and opinions, which, like the book's title, had me saying "Oh yes" and nodding like the Churchill dog.  Struggling to find negatives, I think there were about three or four things throughout the book, with which I disagreed, and he has an annoying habit of saying "myself" when he means "me."

I could quote many and large passages from the book, but would probably end up being sued for copyright breach, so I will content myself with this comment on a recipe for fish pie: "This used to be a pub lunch standard before they discovered goat's cheese and rocket salad. It is now poorly made, if ever, with mean fillings of cheap fish.  Lobster will also do nicely if you are short of prawns."

The recipes are a mix of the familiar and comforting to the less familiar, the latter seemingly being primarily from the Baltic and Central Europe.

By contrast, I found the Koffmann book a bit of a disappointment.  It's a lovely cookbook, with a particularly snazzy bookmark, and all your Koffmann favourites are there.  But there's not much more than recipes and numerous quotes about how lovely "Pierre the Bear" is from his protégés.  It almost seems a bit of a Festschrift with recipes.  It also has a very annoying tic of incorporating both the British and American editions into the one book, with the result that throughout American translations are given in parentheses.  For example, the recipe for the famous trotter is probably about half as long again as it needs to be, as every time trotter is mentioned, "pig feet" is appended in parentheses.

Interestingly they both have recipes for salmon confit in goose fat (claimed by Koffmann as his creation, but that's not acknowledged by Hill).  Once you cut out the flannel of making petits pois à la française and a pea purée from the Koffmann recipe, the two recipes are - of course - very similar, although strangely Koffmann specifies the goose fat should be heated to 50°C (which is naturally glossed as 122°F), while Hill specifies 40°C. 

Saturday 1 October 2016

Soul Tree: some Indian wines

India is known for many things. Wine is not one of them.

I suspect that many of us of a certain age fell for an Indian fizz called Omar Khayyam when trying to impress or be impressed at an Indian restaurant in the 1990s. But slowly Indian wines have been appearing on British shelves since then.  Previously I've had wines from Nashik (Sula Vineyards) and Bangalore (Grover Vineyards).  And then there were the rather Indian sounding Viceroy White, Raja Rosé and Rani Gold from Wine for Spice, but they were actually Spanish.  The Indian wines were fine, unexceptional but fine, and lacked any sense of place and felt in a very international style: at the time I tried them, Grover Vineyards were part owned by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy and enfant terrible of the international modern French-American style, Michel Rolland, was involved in the winemaking.  If you tasted them all blind, I think the ones you'd probably pick as most likely to be Indian would be the Wines for Spice ones, thanks to them being specifically designed to go with spicy food.
Fast forward to 2016, and it was interesting to meet Gorvinder Butter and try his Soul Tree wines.  Apart from a couple of reds that I couldn't get on with, I thought the increase in quality over the last Indian wines I'd had was very noticeable, plus a bit more a sense of place.  Soul Tree is based in Birmingham, but the wines and the vineyards are located in India's largest wine-grape growing district, the Nasik Valley, around a hundred miles north east of Mumbai. Fortunately the vineyards are at sufficient altitude to be able to take advantage of cooler nights.

  • NV Soul Tree Aikya
    Apparently a blend of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Symphony, and Shiraz.
    A zesty lemon nose that immediately made me think of chenin. Straightforward palate. A good clean fizz, with a blend that strikes me would work well with spicy food. Perfectly serviceable and pleasant drinking. 85/100
  • 2015 Soul Tree Sauvignon Blanc
    A massive asparagus-dominated nose. On the palate, this is a good, fresh sauvignon blanc. Maybe there is some tropical fruit creeping in and taking over from the green fruit. A nice wine. 87/100
  • 2015 Soul Tree Chenin Blanc
    Very fresh nose with zesty lemon and white flowers. On the palate, this is a good, clean, steely chenin. Very drinkable. 87/100
  • 2016 Soul Tree Rosé
    A rather slight nose. It's a good white zinfandel. Much less offensive than some Californian examples. Much drier than most white zin. 85/100
  • 2014 Soul Tree Reserve Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon
    The nose has good balanced fruit and oak. Good palate. Absolutely fine. But a bit dull and international. 85/100
  • 2015 Soul Tree Cabernet Sauvignon
    A good cabernet sauvignon nose. Very pleasant palate. Lush, ripe fruit, but nicely balanced. A hint of wood. 87/100
  • 2014 Soul Tree Shiraz
    A bit mealy-nosed - wood, meat and a strong perfume. Odd palate. Strangely perfumed with air freshener notes. Not entirely pleasant. 77/100
  •  2015 Soul Tree Royal Blend Cabernet Sauvignon-Zinfandel
    Good clean nose. The Zinfandel appears dominant. A bit odd on the palate, and quite green. Can't say I like this. I wonder if it would come into its own with spicy food.  81/100

Thursday 22 September 2016

A Journey through Chianti Classico with Castello di Albola and La Locanda, Gisburn

Serata del Chianti13th September 2016
An evening at La Locanda restaurant in Gisburn celebrating 300 years of Chianti Classico with the wines of Castello di Albola.

Castello di Albola
The medieval village of Castello di Albola, the heart of the estate, lies in the Chianti hills in the municipality of Radda around 20 miles south east of Florence. The estate passed through the hands of various families of the Tuscan nobility over the centuries, but most recently came under the ownership of the Zonin family around 1970.  The estate covers some 900 hectares, planted with around 4000 olive trees and 150 hectares of vines.

We were just 11 days short of the 300th anniversary of Chianti Classico, as it was 24th September 1716 when Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici defined the boundaries of the Chianti, Pomino, Carmignano and Vald'Arno di Sopra wine growing regions  between the cities of Florence and Siena. He also established an organization to control wine production and to guard against counterfeiting. 

We were taken through the wines by Alessandro Marchesan from Zonin and through the matching food, prepared by chef Maurizio Bocchi, by Cinzia Bocchi of La Locanda.

We started, as is becoming traditional at La Locanda's special evenings with an olive oil cocktail - a bloody mary incorporating the Castello di Albola extra virgin olive oil.
A very spicy, very potent Bloody Mary with extra lushness from the olive oil
With the Bloody Mary was served what most of the table thought the best dish of the evening, a toasted slice of Maurizio Bocchi's own made Tuscan bread topped with local Lancashire cavolo nero draped with some thinly sliced lardo di Colonnata just melting on to it.  Delicious, and a perfect balance of flavours.

Crostone con lardo
Tonno del Chianti - pork shoulder cooked for 8 hours in white wine and veg, then shredded and then strained and marinaded in loads of herbs and loads of olive oil. Pulled pork Italian style I decided to call it. The thing is, it not only looked like tinned tuna, but it was impossible not to think the flavour wasn't reminiscent of tuna too.
Tonno del Chianti
  • 2013 Castello d'Albola Chianti Classico DOCGServed cool.
    A good garnet colour - not looking obviously youthful.
    Very good nose. Lots of typicity and a touch of bacon fat. And as it warms up in the glass, there's a touch of veal stock on the nose.
    Bright, savoury fruit on the palate. There's a fair bit of spice too. It almost feels like it should be a bit chunky and rustic, but then a very velvety character takes over and smooths it all out. Great length.

    The difference between this and the 2012 which followed it is remarkable, almost like different estates and different winemakers. The comparison that came to my mind was that the 2013 was like a dry stone wall to the neatly laid Accrington brick wall of the 2012.
Primo Piatto
Zuppa di farro. A rustic soup of spelt, with onion, a smoky pancetta and Pecorino Toscano DOP. Simple but delicious, and remarkably excellent with the wine.
Zuppa di farro
  • 2012 Castello d'Albola Chianti Classico DOCG
    Served en magnum.
    2012 was a cooler, more difficult year than 2013, rescued by a very good September.  A rich, deep garnet appearance. 
    Much more closed on the nose than the 2013, but also with richer, sweeter fruit, and (despite being served in magnums), this has lost its baby fat.
    Very smooth and velvety on the palate. Very good, pure, sweet fruit. A little brooding maybe. Very savoury, slightly sour cherry fruit on the finish. 
    Again despite being in magnums (the received opinion being that a wine should age more slowly, the larger the bottle), overall it's very nicely integrated with good poised. 89/100
Secondo Piatto di Pesce
Brodetto chiaro di pesce - a delicate clear fish broth with monkfish, clams, mussels and lemon sole
brodetto chiaro di pesce
  • 2015 Castello d'Albola Poggio Alle Fate Toscana IGT
    An unoaked chardonnay, made in a Chablis style. Limited production of only 10,000 bottles and, in the UK at least, destined for the on-trade ony.
    A very pale lemon straw colour. Flinty, steely nose dominated by the minerality with some salinity.
    A very austere, steely attack. Quite a firm texture in the mouth, with notable acidity. It feels quite extracted with a pear drop intensity. Very zippy and tingly in the mouth with that same salinity that was on the nose coming through on the finish.
    Very austere and a bit hard work. Pleasurable is not the word.
Secondo Piatto di Carne
Costolette di agnello con cavolo nero e salsa alle nocciole (lamb steaks with Lancashire cavolo nero and a hazelnut sauce that was delicious in itself, but also a wonderful combination with the lamb - a combination I'd never had, but a complete revelation.  Sadly the lamb was overcooked.
Costolette di agnello con cavolo nero e salsa alle nocciole
  • 2012 Castello d'Albola Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG
    A very even garnet red.
    Very attractive nose. It has a lovely perfume, cherry and a hint of rose, together with a suggestion of a sort of vaguely salted anchovy umami note and a hint of vanilla.
    Very silky attack with good concentration immediately evident and feeling very integrated. In the mouth, it builds and builds, developing a certain spiciness and increasing in rusticity. That developing rustic note makes it feel like it's about to fall apart after the elegantly restrained attack, but then it pulls itself together as more evident tannins come along and help it to reintegrate. Very well handled oak.
    It is, however, far too young. I'd score this 86/100 now, but with the potential for 88-90 when it's matured enough to be drinkable with pleasure. 89/100
  • 2013 Castello d'Albola Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
    2013 is the first vintage of the Gran Selezione, and was released for sale in June 2016.
    A lovely, integrated nose that feels more mature than the 2012 Riserva. Good, integrated fruit with a bit of subtle oak knitting it together.
    Rich, full attack. Very nicely together on the palate. A touch of salty, savoury spice on the finish. Very elegant. A real step up in terms of elegance over the other Castello di Albola Chiantis.
L'elmo di Caterina dei Medici... lo zucotto.  A magnificent, if far too large pudding, a bit like the old Russian Cake you used to be able to buy from bakeries, using up leftover cakes, soaked with booze. Here it was filled with sweet ricotta cheese, toasted hazelnuts and chocolate, the whole thing then covered in a rich chocolate ganache.  

  • 2005 Castello d'Albola Vin Santo del Chianti Classico
    An intense raisiny nose with some apricot. There's a touch of oxidative nuttiness.
    Very concentrated palate. Very, very intense. Almost painfully intense. Pretty decent acidity. It has a nice, oily, nutty feel. An extremely accomplished vin santo - one of the best I can remember having.
For this evening, I was the guest of La Locanda.

Saturday 13 August 2016

Mrs Miller's, Culgaith, near Penrith

At the end of July 2016, the Good Food Guide announced the winners of its Regional Restaurants of the Year competition.  The overall, national, winner was Wine & Brine in Moira, County Armagh, but what - of course - caught my attention was the Guide's North West Restaurant of the Year, was Mrs Miller's at Culgaith..

My immediate reaction was Mrs Who at Where? In this connected age of social media and such like, I like to think I keep up with much of what's going on in the restaurant scene, at least in the north west. I'd never heard of Culgaith, let alone Mrs Miller's.  Checking on Twitter, nobody else seemed to have heard of it either.

Culgaith is a small village in the Eden Valley, and a former station on the Settle to Carlisle railway line, near Temple Sowerby.  If that means nothing to you, it's about 7 miles east of Junction 40, the Penrith junction of the M6.

Mrs Miller's is part of the Hazel Dene Garden Centre, so yes, it's a garden centre café. I admit to approaching Mrs Miller's with a hint of trepidation. Had the Good Food Guide somehow been rigged, I wondered.  But there was still hope in my heart. After all, many garden centres have upped their food offer in recent years, and there was always Skye Gyngell at Petersham Nurseries in London, which gained a Michelin star before she moved on to Somerset House on the Strand.

The entrance through the garden centre car park doesn't make the most prepossessing first impression when you pull into the car park.  Nice selection of plants though, all good quality stuff. Really good selection of edible plants too, including some apple trees impressively weighed down by fruit.  It also clearly serves as the village shop. The only thing it seemed to be missing is a post office counter. 

Nice apples - hope they don't go to waste and there's apple pie on the menu later in the year

When you've made your way through the garden centre, it looks like you might be eating in a polytunnel, but thankfully this is only housing some vegetable beds, and a ramp and steps up to a brick building which houses Mrs Millers. It's presumably an old railway building, given it is so hard up against the tracks, although I think the station building is on the other side of the tracks, where you can still see the remains of the platform, so maybe this was the old goods shed?

Possibly the most unassuming street presence for a restaurant ever?

Presumably to supply the kitchen?
Once inside, it's comfortable, relaxed and not too garden-centre-café-like. Some proper chairs and tables, a deep leather sofa in front of a fireplace, some more conservatory style chairs on other tables, including in the little annexe where I sat, as it got the most natural light.

There seem to be several menus throughout the day, with some overlap, some of which do offer what you might think of as more garden centre café fare. The lunch menu, however, reassures any doubts that may still linger about how a garden centre café could be the Good Food Guide's North West Restaurant of the Year.

It's brief; commendably brief. Two starters and six mains, with the dearest main being £10. Yes, £10.  And look at the bottom of the menu: you could get a two course lunch for £7. Which is frankly remarkable. How do they make money on that?  (A nearby table had that: the ham, egg and chips was a plateful and looked jolly good, as did the suissesse-style soufflé and sea bass dish.)

Despite it being a cold, damp August day and the soup sounding a great option, I started with the smoked salmon, scampi and prawn starter.  Remarkably generous for a fiver (it was bigger than it looks in the photograph below), with good smoked salmon (Brougham Hall is a local wholesaler, I believe), a pair of crisp, lightly battered scampi and some prawns lightly bound in a good marie rose. Nice bread that they make themselves too. Not too sure about the hefty branch of parsley on top.

Choosing a main course was very difficult.  The lure of testing chips in a new place won though.  An excellent flat iron steak that was both extremely tender and had good flavour.
Having chips and salad both in pots, sat on the plate, in the sauce, was a bit annoying, but I understand why they need to do it: otherwise people would complain the chips got soggy in the sauce, and the salad warmed up and the dressing mixed with sauce.  I liked the addition of a few bits of stilton in the salad, which seemed a bit of an inspired idea.  The chips were excellent.
The meat was cooked rather more medium than I'd have liked, and I'd have preferred more of a sear on the outside.  And if I'm being really, really picky, the sauce was a teeny bit thin, if otherwise nicely made.  But it was all better than many other places, and who on earth could complain when it's only a tenner?

Desserts are more cake counter than desserts.

Blackcurrant meringue tart was like a lemon meringue tart, but with blackcurrants replacing the lemon. I really liked this, and thought it worked well. Very thin pastry: the blackcurrant had seeped into it on the bottom, but the edge was still crisp.

Service was very good: friendly, efficient and knowledgeable, and overall, I was very impressed.  I'd gone with low expectations, and while there are quite a few good garden centre cafés around these days and these parts, Mrs Miller's is clearly a notch above. 

It is a garden centre café, but it's much more than you might understand a garden centre café to be.  It felt to me a bit like a pop-up restaurant that was doing a brief stint in the space.  The main downside seems to be only that it's around a 90 minute drive away from me.

Oh, and the other downside is this:
First time I'd come across Fentiman's Lemon Shandy, and very nice it was too. But why is it served in a kilner jar? Not nice to drink out of. Stop it.

I'm pleased to say that on a subsequent visit, the Lemon Shandy came in a proper glass. Big tick!

I deduce from Mrs Miller's Facebook page that they are under the same ownership as a restaurant in Penrith, Four and Twenty, which appears to have the same bargain prices. Definitely one to put on my list.

Sunday 26 June 2016

The Forest Side, Grasmere

The Forest Side hotel in Grasmere is the latest in Andrew Wildsmith's small collection of boutique hotels (which includes the notable Hipping Hall, near Kirkby Lonsdale).

The décor, the formality vs. informality, the luxury vs. elegance, and above all the food is all exceptionally well balanced.

The food comes from the kitchen of Kevin Tickle, who must get really fed up of being called Simon Rogan's former head forager. There are touches of L'Enclume about the food, and there is plenty of foraging evident both on the menu and on the cocktail list. But Tickle has grown into his own style, with dishes being more focused than they have become in recent years at L'Enclume. There is a lot of "technique" - much of it modern - but it is not forced.

I started in the small, rather glitzily decorated bar where the cocktail list included some interesting creations, including this made with gin, cinnamon, prune juice & possibly some other stuff. Very nice, though there was an issue with (I think) the prune juice either having been put in the glass separately or having rapidly settled. A quick swizzle sorted that out though.

The dining room is just a gorgeous airy space, quite distinct from the style of the rest of the hotel, with a touch of the Scandi about it. The tables are apparently made from the old floorboards of the room.

There are several rather over-cutely named menus: a 3 course a la carte menu ‘The reet l’al yan’ at £50; the Bait Menu, a four course table d'hôte lunch at £35, a six course tasting menu, the l'al 'un at £60, and, in the evenings only, a ten course tasting menu, the ‘grand 'un’ at £75.

I had the six course menu, which started with a couple of appetisers not on the menu above, served on a lump of apparently charred timber, designed to really upset the we-want-plates brigade:

A celeriac tuile filled with their own black pudding, Tunworth cheese and apple: the tuile was perhaps a little heavy, but needed to be substantial enough to carry the black pudding filling. Cold black pudding required a bit of a brain reset, but once you overcome that, the flavours were excellent.
This was a wafer made with Westcombe cheddar and topped with an evanescent cheese snow that just evaporated in the mouth.

The bread was absolutely beautiful, and such a pleasure not to have to struggle with excessively chewy sourdough. The loaf was made with wild yeasts that the kitchen had cultivated from Lyth Valley damsons.

Moving on to the menu itself, a kombu broth with kohlrabi, sea lettuce and a clam had a really clean, yet deep flavour.

Duck heart salad with lightly pickled turnip, walnut & lemon thyme

Cod with shrimps, leeks & mollusc broth.  Superb. The cod had been poached long and slow in a vat of butter, and avoided all the gluey pappiness that can result from a kitchen not getting the low temperature cooking right. And I could bathe in that sauce.

Excellent 32 day aged shorthorn rib, served with cabbage in various preparations ("brassicas old and new," as the menu put it) and a rather glorious nugget of gently smoked bone marrow. A superb sauce again.

The first dessert was a sweet cheese parfait with lightest honeycomb ever and sea buckthorn. A great first dessert.

The second dessert was rhubarb - poached, granita & ice cream - with sweet cicely syrup & burnt butter biscuits.
Being hyper-critical, the biscuits, while having a superb flavour, felt a bit thick and clunky in relation to the lightness of the rhubarb, particularly the ice cream and granita.

Espresso was absolutely superb. Though I'm not proud: I'll admit I turned this plastic cup round a full 360° before realising it didn't have a handle at all!
With the espresso came a couple of petits fours:

After the  meal, Tickle asked me for constructive criticism: it was very difficult to find anything to criticize, and about all I could come up with was that this fir Turkish delight petit four was a bit too heavily set with gelatine.

The meal ended as it started, with this second petit four requiring a bit of brain recalibration: fudge has been rolled out (or just made flat?) and topped with reindeer moss and some other stuff. Bloody brilliant.

Having had the pre-lunch cocktail, I just had water and a very delicious non-alcoholic "All At Sea" mocktail, which I think involved cranberry juice among a number of other ingredients.

There is, however, a particularly interesting wine list made up of organic, biodynamic and "real" (ugh) wines, largely sourced I think from Buon Vino Wines in Settle: some bins I'd heard of, but I'm a wine geek, but all sounded fascinating. There aren't, however, any bargains on the wine list, which is sadly rather sternly priced.

I asked for, and was given a quick look round the rooms: I find that it's always useful to have a look at accommodation in local hotels and restaurants and rooms when I get the chance, as it's highly unlikely I'd ever stay, due to a probably irrational feeling that one doesn't stay overnight within 45 minutes of home, and it's useful to know whether the accommodation can be recommended.  I'd have no hesitation in recommending the rooms at Forest Side: the bigger rooms at the front of the hotel are just magnificent, with fantastic rooms.  The smaller rooms are beautifully appointed and are quite a lot smaller, and have no view to speak of at all, almost to the point that you'd not want to look out of the window at all.  But there's nothing they could ever do about that.  I was particularly taken that there are three ground floor rooms that are dog friendly, and have their own external doors.

Finally, I was also taken by the fact that the Forest Side has its own waterfall, which was certainly flowing on the drizzly day I went: