Monday, November 27, 2006

Guild of Food Writers Annual Lecture Dinner

Tuesday night saw many members of the Guild of Food Writers descend on the Radisson Edwardian Mayfair Hotel for the Annual Lecture Dinner. The lecture was given by Dame Deirdre Hutton of the FSA who spoke about the role of the agency and some of the work it has done to date. Interestingly the FSA is apparently revenue-neutral! I'm sure that must be a first for an agency of its kind.

The food was excellent with divine canapes (most of which I seemed to miss as I was detailed to take photographs!) and the dinner and accompanying wine excellent. The main course was sirloin steak and it was quite outstanding.
Photos top to bottom: chef carving sirloin steaks; GFW President Sue Lawrence with Dame Deirdre Hutton; Xanthe Clay and Glynn Christian and Jane Suthering and Richard Ehrlich.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Fierce Food

It's not your average food book, that's for sure, but Fierce Food is definitely worth a read. Our good friend Christa ate her way through some fairly outre dishes whilst researching this book and I tried hard to help her. Unfortunately the only ingredient she was truly desperate for us to try didn't get within two feet of my mouth (and not within 20 feet of Adam's - he insisted on staying indoors until I had poison-tested the stuff). As soon as my nostrils registered the assault I bottled out and ran for it. Did you know the smell of surstromming can outrun you?

This revolting concoction, made from canned rotten herrings, is, believe it or not, a delicacy in Sweden. Maybe the cold air over there does something to dull the pain when it reaches the olfactory sensors or perhaps if you've consumed enough vodka to anaesthetize your nasal passages it isn't so bad.

'Don't open it indoors!' warned Christa, as she appeared with a small bulging can one day. 'Open it under ice, outdoors and then when you've eaten it let me know what you think'.

Never let it be said that I am not dedicated to my friends. The can bulged in the fridge until the fear of it exploding drew me outdoors on a sub-zero evening armed with a bucket of iced water and some crackers. I plunged my hands bravely into the frigid water, grasped the can, pierced it and... ran for my life. The stench hit me like a physical blow and instead of opening the tin properly and taking a bite I legged it indoors as fast as possible. Unfortunately not even locking myself in helped. The whiff had somehow attached itself to me and followed me indoors. Adam wrinkled his nose and looked unwell which wasn't encouraging. He wasn't willing to leave the safety of his armchair to help fix the problem either.

The tin was still out there, in the garden, waiting for consumption. Clearly it couldn't stay there. Armed with a pile of plastic bags I braved the stink and wrapped the vile stuff in layer after layer of carrier bag before sealing it inside several black bin liners. I could still smell it. Rather unceremoniously I dumped the bag next to our dustbin, fled indoors for a shower and then put the clothes I had been wearing straight into the washing machine. Adam continued to sniff the air suspiciously.

Luckily the following day was bin collection day because the aroma from the surstromming was oozing around the neighbourhood. I was out taking the children to school when the bin men came round but there were a lot of comments in the playground about the stench of sewers in the village. More than one person intended to call the council. Needless to say I didn't confess.

If Christa ate her surstromming I wasn't there to witness it. Nor did I check for reports of sewage leaks on Hampstead Heath in the papers. However, there are a lot more fierce foods in her book and most of them seem more appetising to me than rotten herring. I've eaten a few and survived.

Fierce Food isn't available in the UK yet but you can get it from Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Aberdyfi again...

We've eaten well in Aberdyfi this past few days. The main news is that Derek's Plaice, the fish shop, is now Gill's Place. Gill took over officially at the start of the month and a new name board is proudly in place above the shop.

The other mention I must make is the lovely Thomas Butchers & Delicatessen in Tywyn. Having sampled their range extensively during the summer, I was pleased to see that they've extended it still further. The Welsh eggs are a particular treat on the delicatessen side and the bacon and 30 day hung fillet steak very special from the meat end of the counter.

If you're ever in the area I hope you'll visit both!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Fresh Hop Beer and Business Awards

Meandering home from the Crooked Billet, we decided to stop in at Loddon Brewery in Dunsden Green to see if Chris or Vanessa were there. Sameer and Mary hadn't visited the brewery before and rather fancied taking home some beer for Sameer's father. Luckily for us Chris was in, although looking slightly worse for wear owing to a late night at the Henley Business Awards where he won the Business Person of the Year Award. Congratulations!

Fortunately Chris was happy to conduct a speedy tour of the brewery and dispense some Dragonfly for Sameer to take away. I'll be visiting Loddon tomorrow to pick up some of the new Wolf-Bine beer which contains this season's fresh Golding hops from Charles Farm hop merchants. Fresh hops are rather riskier to brew with than dried hops as the alpha acid content is unknown. Apparently 'the intial samples showed a pronounced ripe orange freshness and gentle bitterness' so I look forward to tasting it.

The Crooked Billet

Last Saturday we made a pilgrimage to Stoke Row to eat at the Crooked Billet with good friends of ours; Sameer, Mary, Hazel and Phil. It was a particularly special lunch as we had all managed to find babysitters (and thus could enjoy a child-free restaurant visit) and very exciting for Hazel and myself as our previous trip to Stoke Row sadly didn't include the pub but instead centred on the Maharajah's Well.

The pub itself is delightfully rustic, with low ceilings, endless nooks and crannies and the lovely red dining room where we ate. The arrival of the menu and wine list were cause for much contemplation, dithering and finally decision-making. To begin with I ate half a dozen Galway oysters served plain and simple with a glass of apple-scented Bozedown Sparkling to go with them. The miniature bottle of Tabasco which accompanied them was instantly discarded although the beetroot relish served in a dish in the centre of the plate was rather good. The Bouillabaisse with rouille, croutons and gruyere was excellent too, and I had quite a bit as Mary very kindly shared in order to save room for her main course. I didn't taste the white crab meat salad but it looked lovely and certainly disappeared quickly.

We rambled on through lunch (such a pleasant change not to be rushed), taking in beef fillet, rack of lamb, calves liver and lamb shanks between us. The calves liver, which Sameer and I ordered, was accompanied by bacon crisps, carrot and parsnip rosti, spinach and sherry vinegar jus. The liver was perfectly cooked and the rosti and bacon crisps provided a delicious contrast. The beef fillet with seared foie gras looked wonderful and the dauphinoise which came with the rack of lamb was perfect although personally I thought the lamb a little overdone.

Although we'd all eaten more than adequate amounts we found ourselves seduced by the pudding menu. Phil's portion of cheesecake could have fed two, with some to spare, and the sticky toffee pudding was sublime. Adam's cheeseboard and port looked excellent but unfortunately I was far too full of muscat and toffee sauce to try any.

I think it's fair to say we'll be going back. As soon as we can.

Friday, September 15, 2006

English Wine

Listening to Radio 4 today I heard a debate on the increasing alcohol content of European and New World wines and whether or not it affects the flavour and intensity of the finished product. The consensus is that it does, and not necessarily in a good way. And over the past few weeks there has been a lot of talk about English wines as speculation over the rate of global warming leads to the conclusion that England may soon have a perfect wine-growing climate.

At the Organic Food Awards I sat at the same table as English wine producer Will Davenport, of Davenport Wines, and as it happened we were drinking the Davenport Vineyard 2005 Horsmonden Dry Wine to accompany the goat's cheese and garden leaves starter. The wine was superb. If I'd been blind tasting I certainly wouldn't have guessed that it was an English wine. I'm not an expert on wine in any sense, but I like to drink it and I know what I like. And I liked the Davenport wine enormously. If I'd been pushed to say where it came from, without knowing, I'd have guessed at the Loire, or possibly the Sonoma Valley. But England? Surely not.

The 2005 is selling fast but there is some still available from the Davenport website. Get it while you can.

The week prior to the Awards lunch, I stopped off at a'Beckett's vineyard near Devizes in Wiltshire. The wine was delicious; crisp, dry and aromatic. Paul Langham talked us through his philosophy which in essence is to 'concentrate on the grapes and you will make good wine'. Paul and his wife, Lynn, run the vineyard alongside day jobs and their young family which must make for an interesting life. Plans are afoot to build additional facilities on site, including a bottling plant, which will enable the Langhams to have more control over the winemaking process.

There are several websites with information on English wine and its producers. and English Wine Producers are a good place to start. I'm off to begin research in earnest - there are a dozen or so bottles of good English wine on the rack to be going on with.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bordeaux Quay

The Soil Association's Organic Food Awards presentation ceremony was held last Friday at Bordeaux Quay in Bristol with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall handing out the awards to the best organic producers and retailers in a wide range of categories.

Bordeaux Quay is a fantastic place to visit, both to eat and to admire the restaurant itself. The building, created from one of the old sheds on the harbourside, is a superb blend of old and new. The attention to detail is striking and immediately evident in both the design and layout of the space and the materials within it. Having eaten lunch there I can safely say that the same sense of detail is applied to the food.

As you'd expect for a venture in eco-gastronomy the building is an environmentally conscious one: there is no air-conditioning, just well-planned natural ventilation, and the use of light complements the harmonious interior perfectly. How long will it be until every new or converted building combines beauty with being environmentally sound? If Bordeaux Quay shows anything, it is that buildings and interiors are more so much more impressive when emphasis is placed on the quality of materials and workmanship rather than fleeting fashions or trends.

Barny Haughton, chef proprietor of Quartier Vert and the driving force behind Bordeaux Quay, has insisted on a sustainable building policy with a focus on recycling, reusing and minimising the amount of waste going to landfill. This approach connects with the emphasis on local food, which will be largely sourced within 50 miles of the restaurant, and on food education for the community.

In addition to the restaurant there is also a brasserie, deli, bar,bakery and cookery school, all under one roof. It's a testament to this the care taken with this building that the new blends almost seamlessly with the old, so that you have to look carefully to see where different components end and begin. The result is refreshing. Kevin McCloud would no doubt be in seventh heaven. If you're eating there, you might well be too.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Our visits to Aberdyfi can cause a lot of confusion when people ask where we are going on holiday. 'Abu Dhabi? How exciting'. 'No,' I reply, 'Aberdyfi, it's in Wales.'
I suspect that those who know where Abu Dhabi is far outnumber those who could find, say, Machynlleth on a map. Although Machynlleth (the nearest town to Aberdyfi) lays claim to the title of Ancient Capital of Wales few people outside Wales know where it is. Only one person with whom I have had the 'where are you going on holiday?' conversation with knew precisely where Aberdyfi could be found, because she and her husband used to have a stake in a restaurant there.

Anyway, Aberdyfi is a delightful seaside village tucked into the hills of the Snowdonia National Park. The harbour is filled with boats that change direction with the tide, the houses and shops on the front are tastefully painted in pastel colours and there is even a bandstand perched on top of the cliff.

On the food front Aberdyfi has changed a lot over the past few years. When we first started spending our half-terms and holidays there four years ago things were a lot more hit-and-miss. More usually miss. But things have changed for the better with the opening of several shops and a couple of new restaurants to complement the ever-popular Penhelig Arms.

Derek's Plaice sells Aberdyfi-caught crab and lobster, bass, sole, mackerel, plaice, cod, sardines and turbot, to name but a few. The mackerel pate is a must-have for breakfast, spread generously on warm brown bread on top of a thin layer of unsalted butter. In addition to the fish, Gill sells fresh local vegetables and fruit as well as free-range eggs, flowers and citrus fruit. It seems hard to believe that four years ago we used to take lemons on holiday with us.

Almost directly opposite Derek's Plaice on Copperhill Street, is Cigydd Aberyfi. All the meat is fully-traceable and sourced within ten miles of Aberdyfi. As well as lamb, pork and beef of excellent quality there is also a range of cold meats, pork pies, vegetables and fruit. Later this summer a UK-wide delivery service is being launched.

Further round the square Trevor Pharoah opened Bistro on the Square about a year ago, on the site of the old and much-lamented Grapevine. We haven't eaten there yet because it always seems to be fully booked and I'm never organised enough to book months in advance. If only they opened at lunchtime as well...

And last but not least for this posting: you can now buy a decent espresso in the village. Y Bwtri Blasus make a very nice coffee (Lavazza) to drink in or take away! Since taking over the delicatessen earlier this year the new owners have changed the layout to make the cafe area more attractive and offer tempting platters of locally caught shellfish for lunch. It would be lovely if they opened for coffee earlier than 9am though - when the children have woken up at 6am that coffee is desperately needed.