I’m getting very excited about the imminent launch of my second book devoted to one of my favourite foods: pancakes in all their incredible cultural and gastronomic diversity. As I explain in this article, I wanted to explore the whole world of pancakes beyond lemon and sugar: from socca and farinata made with chickpea flour to rice flour and coconut jian bing, Swiss chard farcous to potato latkes, blintzes to ultra-hip mille crepe and doriyaki.
It’s mid-February and I am sashaying down the impeccable lawn of Royal Ascot close to the finishing line flaunting my black and purple straw hat last seen at my wedding 28 years ago, eyeing up the jockeys and their trainers fetchingly dressed in designer tweeds and most extraordinarily beautiful horses I’ve ever beholden.
My first ever day at the races, what a treat. I’m doing it in style at the Panoramic Restaurant with its awe-inspiring views from the balcony across the racecourse and woods beyond with the Shard just visible on the skyline.
After several glasses of Bollinger, and another, a honeyed nectar of a champagne with an impressive weight to its mouthful and a host of Rhubarb canapés – most notably exceptionally moreish stilton and walnut sables, we’re seated for feasting.
Raymond Blanc’s starter is a homage to his long love affair with Thailand. Cornish crab with a fragrant, lemongrass imbued coconut bisque and shards of fresh coconut – clean, fresh and wonderfully redolent of flavours I last experienced in Bangkok. The dish is accompanied by Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvee AND Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc 2015.
Superb fillet of beef with an extraordinary rich oxtail stuffed potato and field mushrooms with truffle butter and red wine shows off Phil Howard’s prowess of taking the best ingredients and treating them simply to enhance their purity. The Chateau Tour Pibran Pauillac 2009 is a treat.
A deconstructed Black Forest gateau dish with kirsch cherries by Gemma Amor, Ascot Executive chef is a little dated and would benefit from more intense chocolate. I
concentrated more fully on the Hungarian Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2013. Wines superbly chosen by Bibendum.
Did I bet? Sure, though my winnings sadly didn’t prove sufficient to book a return visit for Lady’s Day at Royal Ascot.
Brunch gets a sophisticated makeover at Eneko Atxa, the 3 Michelin Basque star who’s transformed One Aldwych’s restaurant. It’s a place to make a grand entrance too with sweeping copper staircases leading down to dramatic red leather banquette booths.
For brunch, think tacos, Basque style with corn talos including the freshest of anchovy, tomato and pecorino “pizza” with real depth of flavour, milk buns with slow braised pork shoulder so tender it dissolves in the mouth and scrambled egg, jamon and potato, like an especially melting tortilla. Filigree-light fried egg on talos with wild asparagus were unexpectedly elegant and thoroughly upstaged by ambrosial mashed potato.
A little copper pan of hake, clam and mussel stew has real marine intensity. Star dish is an exquisitely presented crisp corn talo with heritage tomatoes that taste of sunshine even in February and a scattering of flowers.
Being greedily hungry, we had a plate of 16 year aged txuleton, dairy beef, agreeably pink, though the fat needed more charring to reveal its true unctuousness. Subtly salty-sweet caramel mousse with sheep’s milk ice-cream is an exercise in understatement on the plate and makes for a sophisticated dessert. We stuck with the Basque Country and wines from Gorka Izagirre, the vineyard the chef runs with his uncle in the Vizcaya region around Bilbao.
In true Spanish style, we were still lingering over brunch at 5pm when pre-theatre guests started to arrive. A brunch of delicious conviviality and happy, proud, laid-back service.
Did I expect to find some of the best wines and most delicious Basque food on a golf course close to Canary Wharf? Hardly, but pure curiosity took me to Vinothec Compass last friday evening to meet VC’s Basque Head Chef, Idoia Guzman. Keith Lyon, previously wine buyer at Waitrose partnered with some quirky, crafty liquid matches playing up to the acidity of dishes.
With the anchovy, stuffed chilli and olive ‘Gilda’ appetiser, Keith poured, from height to exaggerate the fizz, Itsas Mendi’s ‘7 Txacoli’. An unusual Txacoli with plenty of spritz and buttery texture.
Next, warm shots of Jerusalem artichoke, one of the culinary world’s hardest ingredients to partner wine with, blended with rocket and almond pesto. I was thrilled by the match with ‘illegal’ unfortified sherry-style from Sanlúcar – La Bota Vino Blanco ‘Florpower’ which rose to the challenge of the soup.
Following on, a velvety smooth, cinnamon infused pinxto of Basque black pudding plus padrón pepper, brilliant with a pour of Basque, Sagardoa Sidra, which suitably cut through the iron bloody richness of the dish
With ripe, vibrant giant, coeur du boeuf tomato salad, flatbreads of anchovy, olive and basil, and ricotta, pancetta and truffle, Keith uncorked a modern style, mesmerisingly supple and berry rich Saperavi from Georgia. This grape is rather unusual in that it contains already tinted juice, meaning producers don’t need to leave skins in contact with this for so long.
Highlight of the dinner was confit of cod with pepper and tomato rage gloriously matched with a highly unusual, mineral rich white Priorat.
With Belted Galloway onglet Keith decanted red – Olifantsberg Syrah – from gnarled vines tugging the Brandwacht Mountain Range in South Africa’s Breede River Valley. Northern Rhône in style, with exceptionally balanced tannins and a good meaty taste.
Finally, poached white peaches with ‘pistachio Anglaise’ – heightened with rosemary. To accompany, a rare Swiss wine, by Favre John and Mike – late harvest, botrytised, balanced Sauvignon Blanc ‘Moelleux’. Peach-scented white with actual peaches, a perfect late summer ending to an eminently enjoyable dinner with some brilliant new wine experiences.
The best meals are often those that don’t appear to try to hard. Sardine, a new Shoreditch restaurant backed by Stevie Parle with Alex Jackson, who worked with him at Dock Kitchen taking charge in the kitchen, just sings with joie de vivre, the staff are all smiley and know they are in a good place. The food is packed with appealingly simple, good tastes with no pretence or fussiness. The French influenced menu with splashes of Italian and Northern Spanish influences is absolutely joyful. Even though I’d just returned from SW France, it feels like a breath of fresh air.
I love the “snacks” of radishes, creme fraiche pimped with a little salty, fishy bottarga, an interesting, novel combination, and a sweet ultra flaky anchovy and caramelised onion tart that is utterly moreish. I could eat clams, fresh peas and saucisson sec in a buttery sauce everyday, so summery and conjures up the essence of summer and the sea. I’m going to be cooking fish en papillote a lot more after tasting this delicious, quintessentially Mediterranean combination of red mullet, brill,perfectly cooked with courgettes and tomatoes. Lamb ficelle, beautifully pink and rare with white beans would have benefited from a slightly more punchy salsa with some anchovies thrown in. A side order of chard au gratin goes down a treat, a vegetable too often overlooked.
A simple crepe dessert with plums and cherries and apricot kernel ice cream is divine too. Only apricot and brown sugar tart is rather dense and would benefit from more apricots to balance it.
I liked too the mini cocktails especially my negroni infused with peach and was tempted to work my way through the list. Having a combination of individual seating, a communal table and counter seats at the two bars, just adds further to the winning conviviality of Sardine. No wonder it is packed. I’d like one in my neighbourhood. www.sardinelondon.com
Could the tielle be the next must-try street food? It’s an olive oil bread dough pie of octopus cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with garlic, saffron, paprika, white wine, ideally local sweet Muscat de Frontignan and eminently portable I’m fascinated by the tielle, as they are so singularly associated with Seté, a charming Mediterranean town , not unlike a Gallic Venice. The story goes that they were brought to the town by the Cianni family from Italy back in the 1930s though it is likely that the recipe derives from Spanish empanadas. In 1937 Andrienne Verducci opened the first commercial tielle operation and her grand-daughter Sophie still operates it today with the pastries being cooked, rolled out and made in one half of the shop.
This was only one highlight of a brilliant food tour by Nancy McGee of Absolutely Southern France which took in many of the most interesting artisan food producers in the market such as Arnaud of Brown Sugar millefeuille maker, Sophie who marinades her own olives, Frederic’s superlative class extra heritage tomatoes and vegetables. I learnt that monkfish is displayed belly up to best show off its liver necessary for preparation of bourride.
I was fascinated to understand how oysters are cultivated in the Etang de Thau: the baby oysters are cemented onto rods attached to “benches” which are lowered into the sea. As there is no current, the oysters grow especially quickly and become more plump. Of course, we tasted some oysters too, chewed to better appreciate their taste rather than swallowed.
Visiting Fromagerie Lou Pastrou whose owner Mr Cailhac’s family are one of only five Roquefort producers was another highlight. Nancy showed us the polite way to cut Roquefort in diagonals to ensure no-one gets too much of the salt crusted rind nor hogs all the creamy centre over a couple of glasses of Viognier named after Thomas Jefferson. We learnt too that Seté had become a critically important trading centre during Louis XV reign due to its position at the source of the Canal Midi where it meets the sea and many of the embassies had been in Seté rather than Paris, which presumably explained why Thomas Jefferson found himself there.
I was intrigued to hear the origins of paella are in the union of two cultures who settled in Spain. The Romans who brought the padella pan and the Arabs who planted rice in Valencia in 10th C. It is a lively class with a quick demo followed by hands-on cooking in a professional kitchen. They offer team building courses too.
For tapas we made double fried patatas brava with a wickedly chilli rich sauce and aioli using whole egg and a hand-blender very niftily to lift the mayo. The black rice paella brimming with squid and prawns was a toothsome, full-on flavourful dish. Good advice with practical explanations as to differences between risotto and paella and why the latter should not be stirred too much.
I learnt that the “socarrat” similar to “tadig” the crisp, caramelised bottom crust of rice at the bottom of the dish is venerated by the Valencians and how to ensure it is achieved. Each Monday evening class offers a different tapas and paella.
Dinner was highly sociable at a long table with much sharing and comparing of takes on the black paella.
I’d long wanted to visit May’s Malaysian supper club and was thrilled to finally make it to her latest deepest Bermondsey venue. Having spent time in Singapore I was already familiar with Peranakan cuisine, yet I enjoyed May’s explanation of the strong Chinese and Indian influences on Malaysian cuisine.
First up was the most fantastic satay sauce I’d ever tasted on a simple salad of green beans and potato. It was quite unlike any other I’d ever tasted with an impressive deep umami savouriness. May explained she started by making a paste of budu belacan (a fermented fish paste), garlic, chili, candlenuts for creaminess to which fresh peanuts and coconut milk are added. May should really consider bottling it!
Beef rendang of superb deep flavour with coconut, lemongrass, galangal was served informally almost hot dog style in a brioche. Swiftly followed by clams in a highly spiced, garlic, chili broth that just had to be eaten with the fingers. Better still as finger food were tamarind, one of my favourite flavours with its fruity richness, slathered prawns.
Serving all the dishes family style encouraged good conversation with fellow guests from Lithuania, Australia and Scotland. Our main courses were chili grilled mackerel, pork belly cooked long and slow and a stunning chicken kapitan of wonderful tenderness with a harmonious, thick curry sauce of lemongrass, galangal, fish sauce and lots of spice with coconut milk. I adored too the pineapple chili salsa for cooling the palate.
Pre-dessert was agar agar, like a firm jelly made from boiling palm sugar and coconut milk that splits as it cools making for a striking subtle sweetmeat, though some found its texture testing. Both palm sugar and coconut starred too in a dessert of sago pearls, a sweet and texturally unusual dish that I found immensely pleasing to make an almost flirty finish to an exceptional feast.
Galangal, lemon grass, chilli and fish sauce make for a pungent and exciting eating. It’s exhilirating to taste a new cuisine and I urge you to act fast to try London’s first Laotian pop-up in Victoria created by Saiphan Moore, chef/owner of Rosa’s Thai Cafes whose family roots are in Laos. After grazing on tiny well-spiced isaan spicy sausages, we shared an extraordinary salmon dish “pickled” in rice and fragrant yet earthy with herbs (dill and mint are favourites) besides lemon and fish sauce. Must-trys include seabass chargrilled in the tiny kitchen with a herby umami potent dipping sauce, and both Laotian egg plant and green papaya salad. All are fairly fiery yet with pleasingly zingy clean finish and I like that fresh raw greens and herbs are served on the side, undressed. Sticky rice in a banana leaf should be eaten by hand. Though the place is very simple and basic, the welcome is warm and the food a revelation. Hurry, it’s only open until 26 February when it becomes a regular Rosa’s Thai Cafe retaining several Laotian specials on the menu.
25 Gillingham Street SW1V 1HN 0203 813 6773 www.rosasthaicafe.com
FORZA WIN (ter)
Forza Win (ter) is the ultimate in what makes a pop-up that’s become permanent great. Its’ founder Bash Redford brims with warmth, hospitality and a passion for his ingredients that is truly infectious.
I love the way the Peckham warehouse is decorated with Neon signs and a random collection of found objects that couldn’t be styled.
From the frothy creamy take on g & t garnished with thyme to the warm punch (red wine and Campari) served with dessert every detail had been obsessively thought through yet delivered with consummate style.
There’s no standing on ceremony here. A beautiful well griddled romanesco cauliflower is placed proudly yet unceremoniously on the sharing tables with a knife stabbed into it plus a bowl of salsa rosso. We just break it up, dip and scoff – delicious. A large bowl of housemade fetucelle with masses of wild mushrooms and exceptionally moreish rosemary sourdough crumb is next up. Despite the warning that there is so much more to come we polish it off. A brick and nightlight arrangement is in place for the fonduta made with fontal, fontina and parmesan – tasty in a richly umami way though it doesn’t stay molten enough to dip the fantastically earthy and flavourful heritage carrots, aged Delicia pumpkin slices and heritage carrots. Platters groaning with porchetta stuffed with chestnuts and adorned with plentiful, luscious crackling and kale arrive next. Wood-roasting gives the pork a humdinger of intense flavour and the flesh falls away in tenderness. Can we really manage dessert too. Somehow appetites re-ignite for a spectacular pear semi-freddo with a pear puree topped with almonds, luscious, fruity and sophisticated in taste. If this is the future of dining, it is where I want to be.
£35.00 per head for full feast. Natural wines to accompany extra.