Friday, June 29, 2007

Annual Lobster

There are some things in life that are worth waiting for; English asparagus, local strawberries, new potatoes and LOBSTER. You can get them frozen, you can get them from warmer climes, but as my birthday coincides with the height of the native lobster season it is my traditional present to myself. Our colder waters, like those of Maine, produce the sweetest, tenderest, tastiest lobsters in the world. They are also fantastically expensive.

You can, of course, buy your lobster ready cooked, but unless you know your lobstermonger well, and know how and when he cooks his crustaceans, it is infinitely better to buy it live and cook it yourself. I usually have a bit of a tussle with the beast, but that is nothing to the struggle I have with my conscience. Other seafoods go live into the pot, but none gives you pause for thought quite like a lobster.

Mine was a female, about 1.5 lbs, an ideal weight and plenty for two. Don’t be persuaded to buy bigger creatures – you will be disappointed.

I have in the past cooked lobster by putting it in a pot of cold water and bringing it slowly to the boil. The idea is that the lobster gets sleepy as the water warms up, and quietly expires at around 80ºC. The last time I did that she struggled and clattered and banged around in the pot and I felt truly dreadful.

So this time I tried another technique. My girl was pretty lively and I put her in the freezer for half an hour. At the end of that time the water had come to the boil and she was frosty and slow. I muttered an apology as I held her over the steam and then dropped her in and slammed on the lid. Twenty minutes later she had turned from a lively navy with ocelot spots to a brilliant lipstick red. I left her to cool.

If I ate as much lobster as I would like to eat I would probably do something different with it from time to time, but as I eat it so rarely my appetite for plain cold lobster with potato salad and cucumber has not yet abated. Worth making a bit of an effort with the cucumber though, so I peeled it, sliced it thinly on a mandolin, salted it and set it to drain for half an hour. Patted dry and checked to make sure it isn’t too saline, it only needed some chopped parsley and a splash of elderflower vinegar – which I must say worked a treat.

It’s a bit personal between me and the lobster, but it was absolutely delicious.

Friday, June 15, 2007

A Plate of Summer

When I saw Stuart Gillies cook this Pea and Leek Tart with Glazed Asparagus and Herb Salad on The Great British Menu tv programme I thought it looked so pretty, and so seasonal. A simple vegetable tart on a plate with a little clump of salad. Beneath the soft quilt of parmesan cream is asparagus, cushioned on a plump green mattress of pea and leek.

When he baked his pastry case blind he lined it with clingfilm filled with beans. Clingfilm? In the oven? Surely not. I have seen this done once before, and I thought maybe there is special cheffy clingfilm that is different from mine, but nothing showed up on Google. So I decided to cook the tart and follow the instructions exactly to see what happened. And the answer is - nothing. Nothing happened. You can put clingfilm in the oven. It’s a good idea actually, because the film moulds easily to the pastry and you don’t get the sharp edges that dig into the cooked pastry when you try to remove it.

Stuart Gillies’ pastry may be the best I have ever made. It is generous with the butter. Try to keep your hands as cool as possible, and maybe even put the bowl back in the fridge a couple of times during the rubbing in. It makes the lightest, most delicate and fragile pastry. When he says add half a beaten egg to the mixture to bind it he means it. You probably won’t need the whole thing.

Keep tasting the mixture – the amount of parmesan and seasoning is critical. And when I was in the middle of making the glaze, whisking the egg yolks over simmering water, I suddenly remembered that one of the judges on the programme – Prue Leith I think – had said that it was deceptively simple looking, but actually quite difficult to make. How true! This little tart really tests quite a lot of techniques. Things you know how to do but haven’t bothered with in a while. Quite a little triumph to pull it off.

The other thing I wanted to make from The Great British Menu Cookbook was Richard Corrigan’s Wheaten Bread.

Just to be clear, in Ireland, soda bread is raised with bicarbonate of soda and made with white flour; wheaten bread is raised in the same way but made with a mixture of meals, white, wholemeal and, often, oatmeal. Corrigan adds honey and a teaspoonful of treacle, just enough to deepen the edge of the sweetness. Now this is what my grandmother’s wheaten bread used to taste like although I looked up her recipe and it’s a ‘handful’ of this and a ‘handful’ of that!

Above you see one loaf, in four 'farls' or quarters (fourths actually). Corrigan’s recipe makes four loaves; you need to eat the bread on the day you make it but it freezes well.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Great British Menu Cookbook

I will get to the cookbook presently, and my praise will be fulsome, but before that, some background.

Last year, 2006, BBC tv presented a series in which justly famous British chefs competed against each other to represent the regions that begat them for the honour of cooking a course at a banquet to celebrate the birthday of HM The Queen. This year a second series culminated in a banquet at our embassy in Paris, where the guests were our old culinary enemies, the French.

The theme of both series has been that British cooking should be throwing off the shackles of haute cuisine and finding its own personality and brilliance. For too long, goes the mantra, we have been subservient to a French authority in the kitchen, for too long we have been judged by Gallic standards, for FAR too long our cooking has been dismissed as inferior with a languid wave of a whisk by our neighbours across the Channel (that would be the English Channel). Time to put that right.

The climax of the affair took place last week in Paris. One of the notable facts was that each of the three chef finalists (Mark Hix cooked two courses) actually cooked all the dishes themselves. Imagine that! There were some disasters and some cliff hanging moments, which made for good viewing, but in the end it all turned out fine.

We had been promised that the guests would include the grandees of French cuisine. In the event I could spot only two grandees: Pierre Gagnaire and Raymond Blanc. Raymond Blanc hardly qualifies as a Frenchman any longer, having spent a quarter of a century in England. Pierre Gagnaire is universally worshipped in the UK, and is associated with a London restaurant described as the most expensive in the capital, Sketch.

You might find it instructive to read part of a review of Sketch by Matthew Fort, one of the judges in the tv competition. Fort writes for The Guardian and rates restaurants out of 20. His meal cost £143 for one person in 2003. He gave Sketch 0/20.

“Food horizons in the UK have broadened in the past few years: one of the advantages of not valuing highly our own cooking traditions is that our chefs do not, perhaps, feel constrained by them. So I'd say that our food culture is being reinvigorated in a way that the French food culture is not. This may seem irrelevant in the scheme of daily life, but in terms of how we will eat in 10 or 15 years, it is immeasurably significant. Gagnaire nobly celebrates a culinary tradition that is, in effect, imperceptibly but surely, withering. It is simply too strong for even the most creative chef to break out of.

If £143 worries you in any way, you should not go to Sketch. You will spend too much time wondering if you're getting £143-worth of pleasure. Anyway, at this level, the price is irrelevant. Consequently, I have given Sketch nought out of 20 because it defies any, even notional, value-for-money judgment.”

Rachel Cooke, in The Observer, was similarly aghast. “The Lecture Room, whose menu is overseen by the great French chef Pierre Gagnaire, is Britain's most expensive restaurant. A starter of spider crab, milk-fed veal and caviar will set you back £70; a main course of Angus beef, Béarnaise sausage and aubergine cannelloni with snails costs £65. The critics went for it like meat cleavers on a butcher's block.”

I’ve been to Sketch, for tea and cake, and very nice it is too. A slightly hallucinogenic take on décor in a warren of rooms. (And you must check out the loos!) At any rate, I thought I would find out what Chef Gagnaire is currently offering, so I could compare it to our own presentations. I looked up the Starter Menu.

Langoustines {Addressed in Five Ways}
Tartar with Jellyfied Citrus Juice and Baby Fennel
As a Cold Spicy Broth
Mousseline Flavoured with Cardamom, Cubes of Green Apple and Cucumber
Skewer Cooked Meunière Style, Green Pepper Accra
Pan-fried with Girolles Mushrooms

I thought at first this was the Starter menu, but it turns out to be one dish on the Starter Menu

I think what I’m getting it here is - how on earth did we think we were going to impress the French if this is what they are turning out?

But, to be fair, our chefs were asked to cook for a banquet, not to serve up individual dishes for individual guests.

Anyway, go back to the Langoustines and work out how long it will take you just to get a rough idea of what is going to be on the plate.

So, now we know what we’re up against, how did we do?

The Great British Menu Cookbook profiles the chefs and details every dish cooked in the competition. The ingredients are the stars of the show; it is a matter of regional pride that they are sourced locally and of the finest quality. Presentations are simple, in some cases deceptively so. The idea is that the taste and quality will shine through. Richard Corrigan’s great salmon dishes exemplify this. There is wit and humour, in Sat Bains’ Ham, Egg and Peas and in Mark Hix’s Stargazy Pie. There are a lot of clingfilm rolled things simmered slowly in water baths (gadget du jour, no doubt about it). And an example of clingfilm lined tart cases filled with beans for baking blind (test case to come). And crab is definitely the featured ingredient – yippee, I love crab.

It’s a really excellent book, filled with classy recipes, witty takes on classic dishes, and most of them we could even do ourselves. There is some star dinner party stuff here. I do find myself reading through and mentally crossing out some of the ridiculous cheffy stuff but I know that the finely sliced oysters gracing the poached salmon were probably what aced the dish.

I could have done with more photographs. Sat Bains’ Ham, Egg and Peas was a winning dish, but there’s no photograph of it. If you didn’t see the series you would never know that it is a stunning idea. There are some recipes for dishes that, as far as I remember, never made an appearance on screen, but no explanation. And, the main omission, there is no record of the judges’ remarks at the time. I know for a fact that there were a couple of things that the judges described as perfectly awful. It would be good to have had a rating system.

My British reticence also slightly wishes that the cover didn’t feature the Union Jack quite so prominently, but you can certainly see this book from half a mile away.

Meanwhile, back at the banquet, the French were polite, although I don’t think they are shaking in their three star boots. But they had never heard of elderflower… or perry. Two up to us I think.

The Great British Menu Cookbook

Published by Dorling Kindersley

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

An evanescence of elderflowers

The recent TV competition to find a British menu to serve at a banquet in the British Embassy in Paris culminated last week as the feast was presented. The big hit was Mark Hix’s jelly and elderflower ice cream. I knew it would be. Didn’t I say it would be? And the amazing thing was that the French knew nothing about elderflowers. How can that be? They grow like weeds here and I’m sure they have them in France. The scent, a gooseberry fragrance like a Sauvignon Blanc, is fragile and fleeting and delicate. If you want to do anything with elderflowers you must gather them and use them immediately.

Elderflower cordial, which you will need to make the ice cream, is the easiest thing imaginable. This is a recipe from Jane Grigson, given to her by a neighbour.


Makes about 1½ litres
20 large heads of elderflower
4lb (1.8 kg) granulated sugar
2¾ oz (75g) citric acid (from chemists)
2 lemons


Put the elderflowers in a large basin
Place sugar in large pan with 2 pints water and bring slowly to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Pour over elderflowers, stir in citric acid, add grated zest of lemons, then slice lemons and add to the bowl.
Cover and leave for 24 hours
Strain through double muslin to catch lemon rind and any extraneous wildlife
Pour into sterilised bottles and store in a cool dark place.

Correctly stored this will keep for months. It’s great as a summer drink with fizzy water, or with fizzy water and vodka, or gin. You can add a splash to gooseberries too.

While the sugar is dissolving, make Elderflower Vinegar.

This is excellent for deglazing the pan after frying chicken, or pork.

Just cram as many heads of elderflower as will go into a preserving jar; cover with white wine vinegar and leave on a sunny windowsill for a couple of weeks. Strain through muslin and bottle.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tesco comes in for an awful lot of stick. Some of it is deserved. The supermarket is humungous; it holds a huge land bank, it drives uncompetitive small shops out of business, its requirements from producers tend to mitigate against artisans and small businesses and its treatment of dairy farmers was, until recently, appalling. Tesco is one of the things that people give up for Lent.

On the other hand…

It has a better stock of olive oil than any other supermarket, it gives yeast away free, it is beginning to source some of its produce locally and it already stocks a lot of organic stuff. All this in response, I would guess, to customer pressure.

Anybody who has worked in business knows that there’s a lot of lip service paid to customer satisfaction, but usually it comes from HR. Imagine my surprise therefore when, in response to an email, I got a real letter from Sir Terry Leahy, Chief Executive of Tesco. This man is one of, if not the, most important retail chiefs in the country. You don’t see much of him, although he does occasionally pop up in person on the Today programme, because he seems to spend all his time rushing around doing deals with China.

I had the misfortune to take a tumble in one of his stores. Usually people rush up and ask you if you are all right. We will gloss over what actually happened, but it wasn’t that. I came home seething and fired off an email. I took a guess at the address and lo it was right! Three days later he returned from China and I got a real letter, on real parchmenty type paper. Signed by the real person (I assume). And not the usual two line brush-off either, but a considered, grammatically correct reply that showed that my complaint had been understood and remedial action taken.

Don’t tell me I shouldn’t have been surprised and that it’s his job and that I’m a customer…I was ASTONISHED!

You can’t let these tiny moments pass unnoticed so…a round of applause for Sir Terry Leahy please.

And now let’s get back to the barricades.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Bath & West

How I love a good agricultural show. The annual Bath & West Show, held at its purpose built showground in Shepton Mallet, showcases prize-winning livestock and some of the best produce in the country. This year the rain came down in stair rods for two of the four show days, but then the sun appeared and it all turned out fine. Most of the animals didn’t mind the rain, although the dogs all had to show inside a tent and the racket was incredible. The poultry show was cancelled because of an outbreak of non-infectious bird flu in Wales, and then the ducks couldn’t fly because of the weather.

Some of the bulls looked like sculptures. The SIZE of these animals is titanic. They stood, or sat, or leaned around, looking patient, and not at all bothered by the overwhelming levels of testosterone that were doing the rounds.

Much thoughtful consideration was given to the cheese competition…

and to the cider…

My favourites were the little pigs, who would NOT stand still to be judged.

There was even a Human Cannonball to remind us of lost innocence

And a sheep shearing competition to remind us that not every shearer is Australian

And of course lots and lots of rosettes and prizes.

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