Friday, 23 October 2015

Homemade mushroom soup, elevated by the power of bacon

A little bit of dirt never hurt anyone. At least this is what I tell myself whenever I go about the business of cleaning mushrooms. Which in itself can be a rather complex business. If you didn't already know, there are two trains of thought when it comes to preparing edible fungi. The first is the artis-anal method of gently sweeping specks of detritus from your beloved champignons with a small pastry brush or damp cloth. Gently, gently, swish, swish you must go. Picking and scrutinising each delicate trumpet at a time and holding up to the light, before kissing each musty dome and placing down onto a (clean) tea towel. Preparing mushrooms in this way can take anything up to twelve hours.

The second, more prosaic approach is to quickly blast the buggers in a colander under a cold tap, along with a brusque fondle. A sort of jazz hands whisk and boff, your shrooms will be clean in seconds. The water will not do your mushrooms any harm at all. They will not act like sponges and draw the water in. Their earthy essence will not be diluted. Some French men may cry but your mushrooms will be OK, OK?

With all that in mind, I do still sort of hover in between. I will often start off with the prerequisite flourish of a true gourmand; frilly shirt, dancing around the kitchen to Debussy, running a pair of morels through my fingers like a pair of baoding balls; an OXO silicone brush in the other hand.

However, the stark realisation that I am actually preparing value range 'whites' soon hits me.

So, into the sink they go.

And yet, as soon as those mushrooms hit the pan, I will always, always spot a small, dark crumb of compost and this happened to me the other day when I was making some soup. You sort of sigh at first and feel deflated but in all seriousness, does it really matter? Eating that small bit of mud? I've eaten carrots straight out of the ground before. Hell, I used to eat dirt on a regular basis and it never caused me any harm. Aside from the regular bouts of worming medicine that Mum used to give us. God, that pink stuff was dreadful. But no, mud is good for you. Oomska, wellingtons, growing up on farms* and all that.

Anyway, I made mushroom soup the other day and bloody good mushroom soup it was too. And it was bloody good because I decided to pop some bacon into the mix. You might think that this is a no-brainer. Bacon will improve any given situation, especially where dormant fears about mud are concerned. But adding lardons really does elevate things as the inherent saltiness (and not to forgetting to mention meaty flavour) pairs up wonderfully with the hearty, velvet quality of a good mushroom soup.

Definitely one for autumn, as skies turn grey and golden leaves drop, onto barren patches of earth littered with dusty brown caps. Caps dusted with dirt.

Homemade mushroom soup, elevated by the power of bacon - serves four

The cleaning and cooking process of mushrooms

500gms white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
30gms dried porcini mushrooms
150gms bacon lardons
500ml vegetable stock
1 large onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, sliced 
3 or 4 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
Butter, for frying
Milk, for diluting
Salt and black pepper, for seasoning

Eat with bread and butter

First soak the dried porcini mushrooms by placing in a bowl and covering with boiling water. Leave for 20 minutes to rehydrate.

Meanwhile, add a healthy knob of butter to a large saucepan and place on the hob over a medium heat. Melt the butter and then add the onion to the pan, stirring through every now and then. After 10 minutes, the onion will have softened and begun to caramelise, so add the garlic and picked thyme leaves. Stir through for another couple of minutes or so.

Drain and press the dried mushrooms through a sieve, reserving the brown liquor in a bowl and then add the mushrooms to the pan. Again, stir and gently fry off for another 5 minutes. Then add the bulk of the white mushroom and stir through. After ten minutes or so the mushrooms will have cooked down and become soft so at this point add the reserved mushroom liquor and vegetable stock. Be wary with the liquor and don't pour it all in, as some grittier bits might be at the bottom. Bits that are a lot grittier than mud. Bring up to a simmer and gently cook for another 8-10 minutes. 

Leave to cool slightly before blitzing in a blender and then place in a clean saucepan. Depending on how you like your soup, you can let down the thickness a bit by adding a splash of milk. Taste for seasoning

Just before serving, heat up the soup and place a frying pan on the hob over a high heat. Toss the lardons in and keep giving them a good old toss until cooked through and crispy.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and place a good portion of bacon in the centre. Finish with a extra sprinkling of cracked black pepper and make sure you have some buttered bread to dip in.

This is MY spoon

*I didn't grow up on a farm but I did live near a field.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Häagen-Dazs Coffee Ice Cream with Cardamom and Orange Brownie and Candied Orange

I have witnessed first hand, on many an occasion now, what it takes to quenelle ice cream. And when you watch someone do it confidently and deftly, with two spoons, floating, crossing and spinning in this kind of fluid motion, to create this perfectly smooth egg; well, it's quite hypnotic. Mores to the point, when you watch someone who knows what they are doing, it also looks quite easy. 

The last time I saw someone quenelle under my nose was when I attended a masterclass in pastry at The Cookery School in Great Portland Street, as organised by Great British Chefs and led by Graham Hornigold, who is Excutive Pastry Chef for the Hakkasan Group. We covered various desserts and techniques, including a fantastic twist on apple tart tatin with vanilla ice cream and leading the way on the quenelling front wasn't Graham himself but his right-hand man Daniel Pearse. And he was doing it with one spoon.

Holding a tub of speckled, yellow frozen cream, a quick skim across the surface was all it took, before quickly drawing it back over again, to add an extra layer. Daniel then ran the spoon, oh so quickly across the base of his palm, along his life line and then placed it on the plate. On and on he went, continuing in this way, zipping down perfect ovals onto china. Down on twenty plates all told and all within the blink of an eye. I don't think I can reiterate how quick he was. Apart from saying, he was very, very, very quick and it was a marvel to behold.

It was also mildly annoying because I can't quenelle for toffee. I have been trying for years now and I still haven't quite got the hang of it. Despite lolloping tongue and squinting eye, my efforts always resemble a whizz bang, sharted delivery from a hen that has been egg-bound for five days. 

I really don't know what to do about it. Although I suspect the key factor is to let your ice cream come up to the perfect temperature before attempting any artful ellipsoidalising (sic). I know Häagen-Dazs recommend that you leave their ice cream out of the freezer for a required 12 minutes before any attempt is made to scoop. And this does seem to be the right amount of time. But the window of opportunity to work in after that always seems to be so narrow. So, so narrow.

At least, this is what I found when I came up with this recipe to showcase the release of a new ice cream from Häagen-Dazs, a luxuriant coffee flavour that has been on the market around the globe for a while but never in this country. Interestingly, when I tweeted that I had got my hands on a tub of the stuff, a gleeful and slightly jealous thrust of hands went up, rejoicing that at last it was on these shores. Personally, I had some doubts at first, having blasted my taste buds on some harsh bitter incarnations in the past. However, in their indomitable way, those cod Scandinavians from New Yoike have nailed it again, with a creamy, frothy mouthful of java that really is quite delightful.

To match the rich coffee notes of the ice cream, I decided to pair up two tried and tested partners in the shape and form of chocolate, cardamom and orange. Wait, that's three but all three flavours do work very well with coffee. I would say that this combination of smooth coffee; astringent, dark cocoa; spicy, warm, almost gingery tang; and a sharp, sweet citrus kick is one of my most accomplished desserts to date. But then I would be bragging and no one likes a bragger. Especially one who can't really quenelle.

With that in mind, when plating this up, you might want to go for good old fashioned dollops of ice cream, rather than the egg shaped ones. Unless of course, you are as fast and accomplished as that Daniel Pearce. I haven't seen anyone as quick as him yet though.

Häagen-Dazs Coffee Ice Cream with Cardamom and Orange Brownie and Candied Orange - serves 8


For the brownie

100gms plain flour
80gms cocoa powder
4 eggs
250gms caster sugar
200gms butter, cubed (plus extra for greasing)
300gms dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
1 orange, zested and juiced
8 cardamom pods

For the candied orange

2 oranges
350mls water
150gms caster sugar

To serve
1 tub of Häagen-Dazs Coffee Ice Cream
icing sugar, for dusting


First, preheat your oven to 180C. Then take a square baking tin, approx 20cm across and line with baking paper, making sure that there is some left to overhang on either side of the tin (helps lift the brownie slab out see). Grease the paper and sides of the tin with the butter.

Place a pan of water on the hob and bring it to a simmer. Then place the chocolate pieces and butter cubes into a bowl and sit on top of the water to slowly melt. Whilst that is going on, crack the cardamom pods and take out the black seeds and crush in a pestle and mortar, until they become a fine powder. When the chocolate and butter has all melted, tip in the cardamom, orange zest and juice and stir through. Take the pan off the heat and leave for the bowl on top, so that everything stays melted and warm and so that the flavours can infuse.

Next, place the eggs and sugar into a bowl and whisk them together with an electric whisk, until the mixture becomes light and fluffy. Sieve in the flour and cocoa into the bowl and fold with a spoon to incorporate together. Then slowly pour the melted chocolate in, folding gently and trying not to beat any of the air out.

Pour the mixture into the square lined tin and give it a shake, so that the mixture distributes evenly and then pop it into the oven on the middle shelf for 20-25 minutes, or until the top is firm to the touch. (Don't worry if the centre still seems wobbly, you want a bit of goo) When done, take out and  leave to cool in the tin but keep at room temperature.

To make the candied orange, simply half each orange and then thinly slice each half into moon-like segments. Place the water and sugar into a saucepan, put on the hob and bring to the boil and then tip the orange segments in. Continue to boil for 10 minutes or so, turn the segments every now and then. And then reduce the heat to a low simmer and leave to gently bubble away for 30 minutes. The syrup will reduce and the orange will cook through completely and glaze. When done, lift the oranges out and leave to cool on a wire rack, reserving the orange syrup left behind.

Before plating up, take the ice cream out of the freezer and allow it to warm up for 12 minutes. To serve, arrange five segments of candied orange on each plate. Then, sieve a fine dusting of icing sugar over the brownie slab and then using a sharp knife, cut out rectangle slices and place at an angle away from the orange segments. Scoop or quenelle a healthy spoonful of the ice cream and place in the centre. Finish by drizzling over some of the reserved orange syrup around the outside of the plate.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Fok-ka-chia with Cheese

I once got into this really big argument with a good friend of mine, who goes by the moniker of Big Al. I say big argument, it was a small argument really. But at the time it felt that a lot was at stake. It was over the pronounciation of focaccia, that well known italian flat bread, often found to be peppered with herbs, olives or dried tomatoes on top. We were actually standing in a deli at the time, in Toronto; you know, that one in Canada. And from memory, it was in a deli situated in a very hip and bohemian part of town. Rough around the edges yet blossoming with aromas of patchouli oil and coffee and shop signs announcing talk of the 'internet'. A place called Yongesville. Or something.

Anyway, like two plums, we stood in that deli for an inordinate amount of time, letting people brush past us to get to the front, whilst we took everything in. Gazing from a distance at the curious meats hanging, the cheeses chilling and the vast amount of bread that was on display, we simply murmered to each other. No proper conversation. Just a sort of furtive, whispered bumbling, with no real movement of lips. 

"Um, wha...what do you er think? Do we eat? Shall we ask the people if they can....the people behind the know, shall we...... ask them what we can eat? Cos like, I am really hungry but I....I don't know what the hell any of this is.....I mean, can we eat this stuff? Yes?"

After ten minutes or so, Big Al bravely piped up and nodded forward, saying that he was going to go simple and ask for ham on focaccia. Or 'fo-caa-cha'. Which is how he pronounced it.

I looked at this stack of bread on the shelf behind the counter that Big Al was nodding at, that was clearly labelled 'focaccia' and I grabbed his arm.

"No! Don't say it like that!"

"Say what?"


"Why not?"

"Because you pronounce it like this..............fok-ka-chia."

"No you don't."

"Yes you do!"

"It's fo-caa-cha, not fok-ka-chia"

"Listen, it's fucking fok-ka-chia, not fucking fo-caa-cha."

"Dan, it's fo-caa-cha." 

 Big Al said this through gritted teeth by the way, smiling straight ahead.

"No, it's fok-ka-chia and if you go up there with your fo-caa-cha, that bloke over there with the big bushy beard is going laugh his tits off at you."

"Why don't you order your fok-ka-chia first then? And we'll see what happens."

Admittedly, up until then, I hadn't even thought about ordering foccacia. Or fok-ka-chia for that matter. But as Big Al was standing there with a glint in his eye and looking all smug-like, I decided that I would go for it. Like I said, there was a lot at stake. So I stepped up to the counter and peered over the glass panel and in the most authoritative tone I could muster, said:

"Hi there, can I get a fok-ka-chia with cheese please? To TAKEAWAY!"  (That last bit was uttered in a rather high pitch)

"Fok-ka-chia with cheese?" asked the man with the beard.

"Yes, fok-ka-chia with cheese........that cheese, please," I replied, pointing urgently at some non-descript round of yellow cheese, that possibly could have been gouda.

"OK," he said cooly, with not one flinch of dischord. "You want that cheese melted?" 

"Yeah, why not," I replied, emboldened with a new found confidence, thinking he must have one of those iron press type.....things.

"Comin' right up."

I turned around to Big Al and delivered a gloating smile of my own and casually leaned on the countertop, one arm cocked, to represent my cockiness; whilst Mr Beard did his business with his back turned to me.

A minute or so later, he twirled around, perched a brown paper bag on the glass and told me that my order was ready.

"There you go buddy, chocolate chip cookie with cheese, that'll be two dollars."

Being terribly British and not wanting to cause a fuss, I didn't react. I just calmly reached for my wallet, plucked out two notes, handed them over, grabbed the bag and walked straight out into the glorious sunshine.

I didn't even look at Big Al on the way out. The heat of his jubilation radiating, pulsing outwards was more than I could bear.  Once outside and a fair way down the road, after say about a mile, I stopped and leaned my back against a wall. I opened the bag and peered in. And there it was. A huge chocolate chip cookie, smothered with this congealed and rapidly browning crust of cheese. I took a small bite and have never felt so mournful in my life.

Fair play to Al though. Once he caught up with me and got over his hysterics, he did suggest that fok-ka-chia, said with an Essex accent, could, just could sound like chocolate chip cookie to the untrained Canadian ear. Later, over a pint of Rickard's Red, he even enthused that cheese covered biscuits could well be a 'thing' in Toronto and maybe it was. But I doubt it.

No, somewhere there is a dude with a beard that is greying and every now and then, he will regale upon the time he served up a chocolate chip cookie, topped with molten cheese to some gormless, pale English kid. 

And all because he didn't know how to say "Focaccia." 

"This is not the fok-ka-chia I asked for"

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Meat Judging for the YBFs 2015

Apparently, there is no such thing as the 'meat sweats'. Listen to any scientist worth their salt and they will refute the condition, often giving you an alternative hypothesis that goes along the line of:

"No, you do not perspire excessively just because you have eaten gargantuan amounts of sausage and bacon. You sweat simply because you have most likely eaten far too much flesh, in a short space of time. Yes, I am well aware of the thermic effect of protein, the principle that digesting steak requires more energy than say, a stick of celery. Thus heating up the body, 'burning' calories. However, Dr Atkins was a quack and was over 20 stone when he died. Plus, it is very likely that you have also been drinking in the sun. Now, be off with you, and your hyperbolics about meat sweats."

Knowing this, I sort of agree. I've always thought that meat sweats were a bit of a myth. But after recently whaling through a great lump of charcuterie, along with some fine beef, pork belly, jerky, chicken, crackling and beer; all within the space of a few hours, well, now I am not so sure. I know I was fairly dripping after taking a nap on the sofa and when my wife walked in from work, she did a hell of a lot of sniffing and coughing, before finally spluttering "What the hell have you been eating? Dog food?"

So maybe meat sweats are real. Or maybe I should just take a shower more often. Whatever. The main reason for my sorry state was that earlier in the day, I had attended the meat judging session for this year's YBFs. Or Young British Foodies.

Set up in 2012 by Amy Thorne (founder of TASTE PR), food journalist Chloe Scott-Moncrieff and Lily Jones (founder of Lily Vanilli) the aim of the YBFs is seek out and celebrate all that is new and visionary in food and drink. Ranging from producers to bakers, to chefs and candlestick makers. That is candlesticks made from organic, heirloom, Cosmic Red carrots. So yes, the quirky can apply and so can the old. The word 'Yoof' in the title applies not in age but in the sense of one blossoming anew and with vigor, dazzling onto the scene. And I should know because I was up for the food writing category last year. Unfortunately, I lost out to Misti Traya, who is a highly original, witty and melodic sort of food writer. She is also American. But hey, I wasn't bitter. I just huffed out of the room that night, grabbed a fistful of salami, a bottle of Kamm and Sons and proceeded to give a piece of my mind to judge Marina O'Loughlin, in a shadowed corner of Tate Britain, where the awards ceremony is held.

Not Marina O'Loughlin
It turned out, curiously, that I had picked on the wrong Marina, who is pictured above and strangely similar to the real Marina. In fact, her real name happened to be Astrid Chalupnik and she was only at the ceremony because she had been accidentally locked in the toilets on the second floor after closing and was let out after some screaming. She did agree with me though, that life is indeed a bitch and was more than happy to indulge and share in a swig or two of bittersweet botanical spirit with me. I don't think I will ever forget that woman. With her plump, dark, red lips and wandering tongue.

That was last year and this year's YBFs are fast approaching and by some twist of fate, I have been invited back into the fold. At first I thought it was to be as a judge, along with James George, Richard Turner and Neil Rankin, all three heavyweights in the world of meat in the UK. But yet again, it turned out that I got the wrong end of the stick. My role at this year's selection process was merely to act as witness to events, a role that I initially had some misgivings about. Then a giant called Neil contacted me and said "Dan, there will be shitloads to get through, you'll love it." So I replied with the nonchalant and slightly Prima donna response of "OK, I'll do it."

I am glad I did because it was great afternoon. An orgy of tasting, cogitating and deliberating. It was an also eye-opener more than anything else, as eyebrows were raised at several points in the proceedings, with more than the occasional, furtive glance shot across the table. A just painted table, that left us all with white elbows by the way. In my capacity as independent meat observer, I would say that all five entrants gave the judges some serious food for thought, particularly from an entrepreneurial point of view. The judges do have plenty of fingers in plenty of pies after all, and it wouldn't have surprised me if one of them had piped up with an offer of £30K for a 75% stake in the business. Like that Peter Jones from Dragons Den.

The presentations themselves varied in scope and delivery. Some people expounded at length, showing off their knowledge and expertise. Some brought videos and pamphlets. Some just bashfully preferred to let their product do all the talking. Underling throughout the whole session though, was a strong sense of passion, belief and commitment and it was plainly obvious that all five entrants, live and breathe meat. Which must be a very hard thing to do.

It was definitely tough for the judges to come up with a winner but they got there in the end and as Supreme Court Meat Ombudsman overlooking everything, I do indeed know the end result. But that is all I can offer at this stage. No more, no less.

Except to say this. They ALL gave me the meat sweats. Good luck for September 15th everyone!

Below is photographic compilation of the session, complete with a brief and pithy repartee for each entrant.

You want bresaola? We can do it. You want chorizo? We can do it. You want hybrid, rare breed, maturated salami to tickle your Italian aunt's fancy at her 60th birthday party? We can do it! This seemed to be the over-riding, confident message from young butcher and charcutier Matt Hill, who is  producing a whole range of cured meats, along with his colleagues, in North London. His platter was certainly very impressive visually and had quite the impact when he brought it out, only to be ruined seconds later when Richard Turner plunged a digit into some fat njuda, to scoop out a lump and eat in one fell swoop. Personally, I felt that their salami was extraordinarily good and I also thought that Matt had fantastic hair.

Move over the Hemsley sisters. In fact, you can fuck right off with your healthy eating, girls. For here are the McVeigh sisters, namely Emily and Lucy, and they are bringing us steak all the way from Suffolk. And very good steak at that. From English Longhorn cattle, an ancient native breed, raised with the utmost care and attention with regards to welfare. I didn't know that you could become a nutritionist for cows but apparently they exist and this is just one of the standards put in place at Kenton Hall, to ensure a quality product. Actually frying their steak posed the biggest challenge for Emily and Lucy, nervously aware of the audience they were cooking for. But they did an excellent job, on top of a fluid and comprehensive presentation. 

Former chef Simon Hodge and now curerererer of meats brought a great deal of much needed elegance to proceedings with his thin slices of beef in ale (Five Points) and duck in sloe gin. Dressing his board with a variety of added ingredients, including oyster leaf and pea soup, we veered into restaurant territory, which silenced the judges and their belching. But only for a second or two. Inspired by old English recipes for curing, Simon has been operating out of London Fields for just under a year. His proposal was a quiet one, although I did like his view on the boast that the world's first air-dried ham came from Carmarthen. "Yeah, that must have been circulated by the Welsh Tourist Board that one," he quipped, dryly.  

They are doing all manner of things up in Leeds, so it seems. From delivering meat boxes across the country, to organizing pun-tastic 'Meat-Ups' to educate the masses, to strapping GoPros to sheep for high octane video tours of the farm. All ideas coming from the brain of Ed (just Ed) who runs the retail side of the business. With a clutch of awards already under their belt, they are obviously doing something right. The crackling from his tender pork belly, slow-cooked in cider, delivered a brilliant crunch and his slivers of smoked chicken went down very well, I know that much. That Ed wants to make strides on the nose-to-tail side and deliver offal to the general public was also good shout. If you fancy trying one of their boxes out, don't be surprised if you find some bones for stock tucked in there.

Last but by no means least was Will Yates, who was entering his gourmet jerky snacks in for a second year running. Or so everyone thought. However, it seems that young William has been working on a lot of other things in his unit in East London. Namely pancetta, bresaola, some smoked ox-cheek (in chilli) and a cheesy sauce imbued with njuda. Plus some rather spermy shaped biltong and lots of other 'bits and pieces'. After looking down at it all, it was difficult knowing where to start but Will has definitely had his inventors' hat on over the last twelve months, proving that his obsession with all things meaty, or chilli for that matter, has not diminished. And to think this all started with a single dehydrator on his kitchen counter at home. Impressive stuff.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Orchard Retreat, Devon

A yurt. A yurt called Russet.
If anything is going to make you want to throw the towel in, quit the day job and go live in a round, makeshift tent type thing, complete with wood burner and double bed, in Devon, for the rest of your life, it's sitting in traffic on the M4, in the driving rain, trying to get home, from Devon.

At least that's what I thought the first time we visited the Orchard Retreat. Yet on our second visit, the melancholy started seeping into my veins way way before we hit the road. I would have been wholly grateful for a tractor to brake down, just outside the gates, on our last day. Immovable for another week at least. As parts from Brixham made their way around windy bends and over hilly hills. Via perhaps say, a loaded goat. I am not saying that the south west is backward in that sense by the way. I am just suggesting that a goat would be rather slow, and quite possibly an inefficient mode of transporting spare parts. But it would been a good thing. Because we could have stayed for a month.

Alas, our journey was pretty clear this time around. We were home in just under four hours and as we all trudged through the door, throwing luggage violently into the kitchen sink and out onto the patio, we all sat in silence on the sofa, with looks on our faces that said something like - "Well, this is a load of bollocks isn't it."

I think I even uttered to my little boy - "I know son, this is a load of bollocks. I am sorry. I am so sorry I took you on holiday. We went on holiday by mistake. We won't do it again."

And he just nodded and looked back up at me, sadly, sagely. Before going on to tell me off for swearing.

Of course, holiday blues are not unprecedented and we've all been there before but I do feel it my duty to say that, should you wish to go to the Orchard Retreat, then do so at your peril. Because it is simply lovely there. So simply, quietly and exquisitely lovely. Just a small collection of yurts and cottages, all set within an orchard (surprise!) and fields resplendent with various trees, a stream and soft buzzing bees, flitting hither and thither. All furnished with shabby chic furniture and a few modern touches. Plus the aforementioned comfy beds and wood burners to cater for your inner pyromaniac. Although there is a fire-pit too, if you start feeling totally out of control. Individual private toilets and showers for the yurts, in which we stayed, are scrupulously clean. The kitchen facilities are also clean and efficient. Free WiFi is intermittent, depending on proximity to their router, but why should you care? This is a place to unplug and unwind, to marvel at nature and relax with a Sampford Courtney cider on bench in the sun. Whilst your children run free in the background, slowly turning feral in the tree house and bushes, as days skip gently past.

There is also a clay oven to play with! God, I loved this new addition to the place. We went into a BBQ frenzy last time, as there are plenty of Webers doted about the place. However, given the option of cooking in cob, which we were able to do a couple of times during our stay, well the experience this time around didn't even compere. Assembling pizzas out in the open could be the most fun you can have with your clothes on (and I repeat the word could here, because the children were involved). Especially since the pizzas in question cook within the merest of minutes, therefore encouraging a frenzy of bread and tomato based feasting. "PIZZA!" we screamed. "LET KEEP MAKING PIZZA!" Before collapsing into a heap, bellies swollen, mouths stained red and strings of mozzarella dangling downwards

The second venture was slightly more subdued but no less flash, as I bought a joint of pork shoulder from the local butchers to braise, low and slow. Except things weren't so mellow at the start. A fierce heat burnt the buggery out of the crackling, so that had to be hastily sliced off. But after a couple of hours, we soon had a meal fit for a King; complete with spuds, ratatouille and baked apples. Unknown apples that had been freshly plucked from the surrounding trees, tested at first for tartness and some did leave us with desiccated gums and shriveled lips. But it was oh so good. Every home should have a cob oven and for me personally, it really was the icing on the cake of a perfect break. 

So yes, I defy you to visit and not grimace as you hand your key with a fearsome grip back to owners Vicky and Nick, envious of the life they have built for themselves. They work hard most certainly, to keep things running smoothly. But I suspect there is a wonderful payoff going on there.

I know when I was driving home, I was thinking curiously, frantically even, whether their business model could fit somewhere within my home county. What are those three words? Location. Location. Location. Is there the equivalent of an Orchard Retreat in Essex? I am not so sure

I know I will keep pondering upon it but for now, four hours isn't too bad and as such, I reckon we'll be returning sooner rather than later. Them apples will need picking soon and I reckon some scrumptious scrumpy could be made and taken away, to sup once home.

That would take the edge off the next goodbye.

For inquiries or bookings contact Vicky and Nick on 01363 866058 or via the website

Feral kids, yurt, mushrooms
Double bed inside the yurt, view, fire
Clay oven, Clay Oven, CLAY OVEN! ON FIRE!
Neapolitan before, during and after cooking. Fin's effort, complete with Mattessons smoked sausage
Glorious pork
Glorious sliced pork
Fin doing battle with nettles

Friday, 31 July 2015

Greek Semolina Cake with Orange and Honey

This post first appeared on Great British Chefs website. Which has been revamped and looks all very sexy and shiny and new, you should check it out.

Most traditional recipes, like this Greek semolina cake (or Revani as it is also known), are all open to interpretation, tweaks and additions and this recipe is no different. And whilst I wish I could say that I learnt to make this under the guidance of a scary Yiayia, all clad in black, I got the lowdown for this wonderfully moreish cake from another maternal figure. Namely the very reliable Delia Smith. But then again, she didn’t quite get it right the first time around because my first attempt way back when, fractured under the pressure when I tried to lift it out of the tin and I was largely left with crumbs. This could be down to my own cack-handed ineptitude of course but being the stubborn, pig headed type, I am hardly going to foot the blame. So after further cracks at the whip, I’ve made a couple of changes by adding a smidgen of bread crumb and soupçon of oil to the mix, just to stabilise things. There be might frowns, certainly; but let me reassure you, the grainy texture and lightness of this cake, imbued with sweet honey and citrus, is by no way affected by their introduction. Yes, I am talking to you, my imaginary Greek grandmother. As for Delia, I am sure she won’t be too bothered.

(He says, flinching)


1 large unwaxed orange

200g semolina

50g slightly stale white breadcrumbs

175g caster sugar

100g ground almonds

3 tsp baking powder

175ml sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing

3 eggs

For the honey and orange syrup

200mls of honey

Juice of 1 unwaxed orange

5tbs water

2 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

For the yoghurt and pistachio topping

200mls Greek yoghurt

50gms pistachios, chopped

Honey, for drizzling


First, preheat the oven to 200C. Then line the bottom of a 24cm loose-base round tin with greaseproof paper, then grease the tin. Mix together the semolina and bread crumbs in a bowl with the sugar, almonds and baking powder. Cut the orange into small pieces, removing any pips and then put the pieces into a blender and blitz to a pulp. Whisk the oil with the eggs in another bowl and then pour into the dry ingredients and then mix well. Fold in the orange pulp and then pour the mixture into the tin and place in the oven. After 10 minutes turn the heat down to 180C for another 40-45 minutes.

Check with a skewer by inserting it into the middle, if it comes out clean it’s done. Leave to cool for 15 minutes before turning out onto a plate.

Meanwhile, whilst the cake is baking, make the spiced honey and orange syrup. Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and bring gently to the boil, stirring until the honey has completely dissolved. Simmer for 5 minutes and then remove from the heat. Leave the cinnamon stick and cloves in to infuse for 30 minutes and then lift them out the syrup.

While the cake is still warm, pierce it several times with a skewer, then spoon the syrup over the cake allowing it to run into the holes. If any excess syrup over the cake starts to seep out from around the cake, simply scoop up with a spoon and pour over again until everything is soaked up and leave to cool completely.

When ready to serve, lightly whip the yoghurt to loosen and then smooth all over the top of the cake with a palatte knife. Drizzle with honey and then finish with a scattering of the chopped pistachio.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Three Things: Paella at London BBQ School, Andy Bates' Southern Fried Chicken Livers and Cheese on Toast

Three is a magic number

There are lists aplenty on the internets. Lists, lists, lists. All of which serve our increasing and insatiable desire to accumulate information, statistics, facts and funny pictures of cats, without ever having to actually absorb anything. And perhaps the world doesn't really need another list to look at. But given the amount of 'stuff' I get up to food wise, I have decided to start doing them. Weekly lists, namely short posts or burst of things that I cooked, places I have been to, people I have seen, new or old flavours wot I have savored. That sort of thing. Because there is plenty that I want to shout about and yet I often don't find the time to do so. And if Fay Maschler can do it, then so can I.

Of course, regular readers of this blog will be scanning this with rolling eyes and going "Oh yes, off he goes again, with another idea, let's see how long he keeps this one up."

Well, let's see shall we? Eh? YEaaaaah? *shakes fist in the general direction of imaginary people*

Oh and the lists will be short, keeping the number to three. Because three is a magic number, yes it is, it's a magic number.

Let's go.

Rachel McCormack's wood fired paella at London BBQ School
When I first wandered into the London BBQ School way back in May for sneak peak, as chef, tutor and proprietor Alastair Instone showed me around the place, I did that thing of enthusiastically nodding and grinning and pretending to totally 'get' the concept. When all the while, the phrase - "WHAT THE F**K ARE YOU DOING?" - was echoing through my brain. Because at the time, Alastair was showing me the shell of an empty warehouse, with no roof, in the backyard of a small industrial park in Peckham. The man's vision as he waved his hands around the place was certainly convincing but I did wonder what had been ingested, to send Alastair off on this mad journey.  I mean there is playing with fire and there is

However, when I returned in the latter part of June for preview of a class, his grand plan began to make sense. He might still get his fingers burnt but this is a great concept in the offering. The space is still rough, with shorn brick surroundings and a battered concrete floor but in one corner, a small functional kitchen stood and along one wall, the heads of three Kamado Joe's all popped up smiling, all embedded within in a bench. The roof was still missing. Large perspex corrugated sheets had been fixed up to provide shelter from the elements but on that night it wasn't needed. The air was close, sticky and warm and besides, a wood fire in the centre was roaring away (on corrugated steel) with guest tutor Rachel McCormack keeping a close, beady eye over it.

"Right! This is good to go. Now, where is that chicken? Stop with your chatting and someone get me that chicken."

Having been to one of Rachel's cookery classes before, I do like her brusk yet encouraging and effusive style of teaching. Don't expect to be taught how to brunoise an onion or clarify consomme. It's "Chop that" and "Keep an eye on that stock, it needs to be well seasoned otherwise all this effort will be nothing." Which falls in line with the no-nonsense style of traditional Spanish cooking that Rachel is known for. Get on with the task in hand and then we can have a laugh when we eat, so to speak

This is exactly what we did. After standing around for short while, supping beers and being mesmerised by scarlett bubbles dancing on pearled rice, the sitting-down-to-eat-and-digging-in-communally-around-a-bench was the best part. Bar perhaps being allowed to throw more wood on the fire. Yes, this BBQ school definitely caters for the needs of your inner pyromanic.

Billed as the the best fun you can have in public without getting arrested, I would have to agree. Though if the police were to find you, in a derelict building, dancing around a glowing pit in the dark, with mouths all greasy, they would probably would find some reason to sling the cuffs on the you.

If this sounds of interest, please go here for a list of classes available and Rachel will be running her wood fired paella class this Sunday. There are just a couple of spaces left.

Southern Fried Chicken Livers with Chilli Slaw and Baconnaise
OK, this is going on for far too long already this list writing business but if you try out one recipe this week, try Andy Bates' offally good Southern Fried Chicken Livers. A hell of a lot of temptation pops up my horizon of greed and I am constantly bookmarking posts and 'favouriting' dishes that people make, from bloggers, food writers and chefs alike. Yet they soon get forgotten and shoved to the back, as new ones pile in and pile up. Such is the transitory nature of edible offerings in the online world. I coo and ahh at the screen all the time but rarely am I ever sated. A diet of food porn never fills the stomach you see and I am already slapping myself in the face for using the words 'food porn'.


This dish was different. I saw it ping up and afterwards, I practically ran to the shops to get the ingredients because it looked good, it sounded good and inherently, I just knew it would be good. I mean it really twisted my mellow man.

Quick and easy and slightly messy to make, this was an instant hit in the house and I have made them several times since because:

a) When coated, battered and deep fried, chicken livers transform into these rich, intense, meaty nuggets of crunchy joy and quite frankly, they piss all over any offering that McDonalds or any other fast food outlet can deliver (which probably isn't difficult).

b) Slaw with chilli is a bit of a revelation. Ordinarily, I can take or leave coleslaw but imbued with some heat and grassy coriander, this was a bit of a step up for me. Too far a step for the kids first time around and subsequent tears mean I now make a separate batch. But yes, very good.

c) Home made baconnaise. Why on earth have I been scooping that plastic crap, out of a jar, with a spoon, and sticking it straight into my mouth? When all this time, I could making the real thing? Anyway, mayonnaise of the Gods.

d) Be careful though because chicken livers do spit when deep fried.

e) They are also cheap to make.

f) Oh god, this section is beginning to drag and I have started making lists within lists.......

f) Look, just try this recipe will you.

Cheese on Toast
Lastly and thirdly on the list, I would just like to opine opinion on Instagram. Apart from using it to goof off on food porn (SLAP!) I am still a little mystified as to how the whole platform really works. I mean like really, really works.

For instance, you can work and toil all day on something like, I don't know, a lovely bollito misto that looks appetising and fragrant, meaty but  fresh, resplendent with salsa verda and bathed in a light broth. And no-one will give an absolute frig.

Post a picture of cheese on toast and the world of Instagram will fall at your knees. This picture has got the biggest number of 'likes' to date and this has totally flummoxed me. I mean, does this suggest that should I just stick with the toast? Seriously, I really don't know what to say or how to comment on this glitch in the Matrix.

Which is good because this is too f**king long already but if you could enlighten me, I would be much obliged. In the meantime, I shall be working on next week's list....list.