Monthly Archives: August 2010

Lentil and Chick Pea Curry

If you’re a health nut (I am not, but still in the post-holiday-I-ate-too-much-and-need-to-get-back-in-shape phase), this is a great recipe. The only fat is from the oil you need to fry the onions, garlic and spices. It’s rich and seemingly creamy, but this comes form the lentils, which you cook long enough for them to soften and start to break up. It’s also super-easy to customise this. I’ve made it variously with cauliflower florets, chunks of butternut squash, peppers, potatoes (waxy sort), peas, string beans and cubes of paneer cheese. Another of those “what is in the cupboard” recipes that can be endlessly varied.

This is one of my favourite dishes. Provided you have lentils and the spices in the house, you can make it with virtually anything. Healthy, delicious and satisfying. Perfect for the early days of autumn as the leaves turn and it starts to get nippy…

To make the lentil and chick pea curry (serves 4):

• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 onion, chopped
• 3 cloves garlic, chopped
• 1 knob of ginger, peeled and grated
• 3 celery sticks
• 2 teaspoons cumin powder
• 2 teaspoons mild curry powder
• 1 teaspoon coriander powder
• 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
• 200g lentils
• 500ml vegetable stock
• 1 tin chick peas, drained and rinsed
• 100g marinated tofu chunks

Heat the oil in a pot on a medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it is lightly brown (around 5 minutes). Add the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute. Add the celery and cook for another two minutes.

Add the spices to the pot and stir well. Cook for another minute, but if you find they are sticking or seem to be burning, then add a little water. Add the lentils, and cook for another minute, stirring all the time to prevent burning/sticking.

Add the stock, stir well, and then add the chick peas (or whatever other vegetables you are using). Cover the pot and cook on a low heat until the lentils are soft. Check from time to time, adding more water if necessary.

Check seasoning and adjust if you want to. Finally, add the marinated tofu chunks, cook for five minutes, and serve with rice or naan bread, plus a little raita and spicy chutney.

To make raita: grate a piece of cucumber, and squeeze of any excess liquid. Mix with yoghurt, a pinch of salt and some shredded mint, and allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving. As for chutney – I buy mine in M&S.

Worth making? A very easy, quick, dependable dish. As you can play with the recipe quite a lot, it also makes a good choice when you have a lot of spare vegetables and no idea how to use them all up.

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Super-Healthy Seed Crackers

I’ve recently had a real thing for seeds, and have been adding them to lots of things. Lightly toasted pumpkin seeds in salads, sunflower seeds in muffins, muesli and cous cous, sesame seeds on ice-cream. They just bring that little extra something to a dish. Don’t believe me? Well, in Vienna, you can even have vanilla ice-cream with a drizzle of nutty, green pumpkin seed oil. Very chic. If you see pumpkin oil, I urge you to buy it. Makes a fantastic salad dressing and a rather groovy green risotto.

So…if seeds are so good, why not try making something that focuses on the seeds and makes them the star, rather then just expecting them to be support actors? My initial idea was to make some sort of sweet muesli bar, but mostly with the seeds. Then I realised that I have put so much sweet stuff on this blog and I wanted to try being a bit healthier after indulging a little bit too much on holiday, so it had to be something savoury. A few minutes online and I found, via the ever-useful LA Times, a handy overview of all things seed cracker related. To the kitchen, and start experimenting.

I worked out a recipe based on a standard cracker recipe, and mine worked out really well. The dough came together easily, and was a doddle to roll out and cut. Sometimes pastry is a complete nightmare, taking on its own personality and stubbornly refusing to do what you want it to do. Then you finally get it into a decent shape, and in the oven it throws another tantrum and does crazy stuff like puff up on one side only, or shrinks and looks a bit of a mess. But not this one. It just took a little flour and a rolling pint to get it to about 3 mm thickness, then I cut the crackers out using a knife. Before I baked them, I glazed with a little beaten egg and sprinkled over a few more seeds. If you want that glossy looks-like-its-been-varnished look, then egg is the way to go. After baking, the turned a dark tan colour, and had kept the square shape I had been looking for. Result.

And how did they taste? Really good. There is nuttiness from the various seeds and the buckwheat flour, and just the tiniest hint of sweetness from the honey, and the poppy seeds keep a little bit of crunch and pop in your mouth as you eat them. And of course, them make a delicious foil for a huge slice of mature cheddar, which I think is the way all crackers want to be eaten. Delicious!

For around 50 crackers (5cm x 5 cm):

• 40g sesame seeds
• 30g pumpkin seeds
• 20g sunflower seeds
• 10g poppy seeds
• 120g wholewheat flour
• 40g buckwheat flour
• 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, finely ground
• 2 teaspoons honey
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (I used olive oil)
• water, to bind
• egg white, to glaze
• seeds, to decorate

Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a baking tray with baking parchment.

Mix all the seeds together, and blitz in a grinder until you have a fine powder. Don’t go too far, or they will become oily. The poppy seeds might stay whole, which is fine.

In a bowl, combine the ground seeds, flours, salt, honey and oil. Mix well.

Add enough water to make a dough (around 100ml, but it will vary depending on your flour).

Roll out the dough until 2-3mm thick, cut out small rectangle or squares, and place on the baking sheet.

Brush each cracker with a little beaten egg, and sprinkle over some seeds.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until the crackers become brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack.

Worth making? These are delicious and (probably) nutritious. They were a big hit with everyone that tried them, so will happily be making them again. Good if you want to feel a little sophisticated next time you serve up some good cheese.

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Oven-Dried Tomatoes

At the weekend, I was pondering what to do with a big bowl of wonderfully ripe, aromatic cherry tomatoes, and I hit upon the idea of preparing oven-dried tomatoes. The theory is simple – cut them, stick them in the oven on a low heat, and let them slowly, slowly, slowly dry out.

But how dry do we want them? I like the semi-dried variety. They are softer, and I think tastier, than their very dry cousins, which seems to be due to the higher moisture content. I first had them at a sandwich shop I used to frequent when I lived in Brussels. I became a creature of habit, taking a granary baguette with lettuce, goat cheese, semi-dried tomatoes, cress and rich mayonnaise. Calorific, but incredibly good. With my attempt, I was aiming for something similar – the tomatoes should shrink a little bit, but would remain soft and juicy.

I loved the result. They are so tasty, with an intense flavour that seems to remind you of the summer sun that seems to be getting less and less each day.

To make the oven dried tomatoes:

Wash your tomatoes, and cut in half. You can expect them to shrink to around 20% of their size. Spread the tomatoes cut side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment. If you like, sprinkle with a little sea salt, but if you have very flavoursome tomatoes, this might not be necessary.

Put the tray into the oven at 70°C (160°F), and let the tomatoes dry for a few hours. Check on them from time to time to let out the steam, and let the tomatoes cook as long as necessary. This could take hours, so a good idea to make when you’re at home on a rainy day.

Once ready, eat them as they are as a snack, use in salads or sandwiches, or store in a jar with olive oil and some fresh oregano until you are ready to use them.

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Carrot and Olive Oil Muffins

Back when I was still in high school, I had a summer job as a tour guide. It was an old jute-weaving mill which still had a few bits of original machinery, so we got a lot of people who liked to spend their free time looking at steam engines. You get the picture. It was actually quite a fun job, as you got all manner of people coming through the door. It was varied too, as we also expected to help out in the coffee shop, which meant serving, cleaning and making the cakes. One of our top sellers was a carrot cake, with a dark, soft, dense texture which was made extra-moist by using olive oil in place of butter.

I’ve made my own version of that cake over the years, feeling that the combination of carrots, nuts, sultanas and oil must be somehow good for you. At some point I started to make it with a muffin tray rather than as a large cake, as this seemed more practical, and also makes it a lot easier to take one to work for the afternoon snack. It’s funny how you start to get used to decent baked goods from your own kitchen, and at some point prefer them over the stuff you can buy. These cakes might have sugar and olive oil in them, but that must be infinitely preferable to something stuffed with transfats and corn syrup. Ah, the benefits of being virtuous!

Make 12 large or 18 normal muffins:

• 150ml olive oil (use a light oil, without a strong flavour)
• 90g soft brown sugar
• 1 egg
• 4 tablespoons milk
• 225g carrots, coarsely grated
• 25g sunflower seeds
• 50g sultanas
• 25g flaked almonds, crushed
• 150g self-raising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F), and line a muffin tray with paper cases. Set to one side.

Place the oil, sugar and egg in a bowl, and mix until combined. The mixture will emulsify and thicken slightly.

Add the carrots, milk, sunflower seeds, sultanas and almonds, and stir well.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, spices and salt. Add to the carrot mixture, and stir until just combined, being careful not to over-mix.

Put spoonfuls of the batter into the muffin trays. Be generous, as they won’t rise too much. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the muffins have risen and spring back when lightly pressed. Remove from the oven, allow to cook slighting in the tray (10 minutes) then transfer to a rack and allow to cool completely.

If you want to make cream cheese frosting for these muffins: combine 125g full fat cream cheese and 30g softened butter until smooth. Add 125g sifted icing sugar and mix until smooth. Finally, add 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice and whip until fluffy. If the frosting is too runny, add more cream cheese (bizarrely, if you add more icing sugar, it will get thinner and thinner!).

Worth making? These are great if you need small cakes for a picnic or informal get-together, and make a change from plain cupcakes as they contain relatively little sugar. The olive oil also keeps them moist, so they keep well for a few days in a sealed container.

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Soba Noodle Salad

After holidays, I have come back to London with a real desire to be a bit more healthy. With that in mind, I came up with this recipe. I make no claims that this is in any way authentic (but you might see my liking for faux-Japanese food?), as I just checked what I had in the store cupboard and played it by ear.

I wanted to keep the vegetables quite fresh and crisp, so I stir-fried garlic and ginger with marinated tofu, then added carrots, cucumber and edamame beans for flash-fry for a minute. I mixed this up with cooled soba noodles and shredded red chicory, then topped with sesame seeds and a rich dressing with sesame oil, sambal, miso and soy sauce. I’m happy to report that this was a really, really nice recipe. They soba noodles are a bit more chewy than normal noodles, and it was a nice combination with the fresh vegetables and the sauce. Fresh, light but also substantial. Will be making this again soon.

To serve 2:

• 200g soba noodles
• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
• 3 cloves garlic
• 1 inch piece fresh ginger
• 200g marinated tofu pieces
• 2 carrots, thinly sliced
• 1/2 cucumber, thinly sliced
• 1 red chicory
• 3 handfuls edamame beans
• sesame seeds and chives, to garnish

Cook the soba noodles in hot water. When soft, drain and rinse with cold water. Add a little sesame oil to the cooled noodles to prevent sticking.

In a wok, heat the oil. Add the ginger and garlic, and cook until the garlic starts to turn golden. Add the tofu and stir gently, adding a little water if the tofu starts to stick. After two minutes, add the carrot, cucumber and edamame beans and cook for one minute. If it sticks, add a couple of tablespoons of water. Remove from the heat.

In a bowl, combine the vegetables, cooled noodles, sliced chicory and the dressing. Toss gently, then serve sprinkled with sesame seeds and a couple of chive stalks.

For the dressing:

• 2 tablespoons sesame oil
• 2 tablespoons dry sherry or vermouth
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
• 1 generous tablespoon sambal
• 1 teaspoon miso paste
• 2 tablespoons light soy sauce

Place all ingredients in a bowl and whisk until combined. Adjust as necessary, then pour over the salad and toss gently.

Worth making? Definitely. Provided you have the ingredients for the dressing in the house, the salad itself can be easily customised by whatever is available. This would also work well as a side dish with just soba noodles and fresh spring onions (scallions), or even add stock to the salad and serve as a soup.

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Breakfast Bars

The eagle-eyed among you will notice that I did a lot of posts in early summer, and but have been doing less of them in recent weeks. OK, there was nothing for two weeks because I managed to go to the bits of Europe that seem to be devoid of Internet access, but even so, I’ve been less active. All of this is because I started a new job, which I absolutely love. Everything’s great, but as I get busy, there are those odd days when I end up skipping breakfast.

So what to do? I thought about making breakfast bars, which I could pack with good things to eat on those mornings when I am too lazy to get up early enough for a proper breakfast.

These bars are a breeze to make. Just use juice, nut butter and apricots to make a thick paste, then throw in oats and flour, and then whatever bits and bobs you fancy. This could be dried fruit, nuts, seeds, spice and – gasp – chocolate chips. I went for apricots, sunflower seeds and pistachios. They look kind of funky with all the flecks of orange and green.

They also taste great. They are not particularly sweet, tasting more of oats with occasional bites of nut or apricot, but if you like a bit more sweetness, then you could easily add some honey or demerara sugar to the mixture before baking. And they are filling. I think these might just do the trick to start the day.

For 20-25 breakfast bars:

• 225g dried apricots, whole
• 170g nut butter (almond, cashew, hazelnut)
• 200ml fruit juice (I used orange)
• 225g rolled porridge oats
• 125g wholemeal flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 100g dried apricots, chopped
• 50g sunflower seeds
• 50g pistachios
• 2 tablespoons dried mixed citrus peel

Preheat the oven to 190°C, and grease a rectangular baking tray (I used 20 x 35cm).

Put the nut butter, whole apricots and fruit juice in a food processes and blitz until you have a smooth paste.

In a bowl, combine the apricot paste with all the other ingredients and mix well. Use a spoon, but hands will be easier.

Put the mixture into the baking tray and smooth out. Bake for 20-25 minutes until slightly golden.

When cooked, remove from the oven, allow to cool, then cut into bars.

Worth making? Very much yes. These are easy to make and can be endlessly changed depending on what you’ve got in the cupboard. They will also keep for a long time in an airtight container, so perfect for an early morning bite or healthy snack. If I make them again, I plan to add a little cinnamon and dried apples and sultanas. Yum!

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Bramble Jam, Apricot Jam

On holiday, I had a lot of spare time, and so had the chance to make some jam. In fact, there was quite a lot in season in France, and in the end I made two lovely batches, one with brambles (blackberries, or perhaps I should be referring to them as mûres, as I got them in France?) and the other with local apricots from a fruit shop.

What was sort of fun was that this was jam making à l’ancienne. I had no scales, so I had to guess. So what to do? Just recall the old “three-quarters” rule. Cook the fruit just long enough for it to soften and release its juice, measure the lot, then add three-quarters of that volume of white sugar. So if you have two cups of stewed fruit in its juices, then add one-and-a-half cups of sugar. Then add lemon juice and boil gently until the jam sets. And if it all went wrong, I would just have a lot of fruit compote to mix with yoghurt for breakfast.

In the end, I am very happy to declare both batches a complete success. The bramble jam was superb, with a rich, deep purple colour and fresh, juicy flavour. The berries went from bush to jam to breakfast in less than 24 hours! It also set perfectly, which was happy with. The apricot was also great – a bright, vibrant, sunny orange colour, and very fruity-tasting, and while it thickened, it didn’t set. I don’t know if more lemon would have made a difference, but I didn’t want to overpower the flavour of the apricots. In both cases, as there was more fruit than sugar, the jam was actually not overly-sweet. I know this sounds bizarre given how much sugar we’re talking about even in my version, but if you use equal parts of fruit and sugar, you’re getting into the world of fruit-flavoured sweets rather than jam.

So on holiday, no excuses not to make jam! Get out there and enjoy what the local area has to offer. Just remember a few tricks and it’s easy. Firstly, the three-quarters rule will usually work. Secondly, the juice of a lemon will help to set the jam. If you don’t mind a stronger lemon taste, then you can add the juiced lemon to the jam as it cooks, and remove it once the jam is done. If you’re making a lot of jam, you might add even more lemon juice, but just wing it – that’s what my grandmother did, and her jam rocked. Finally, cook jam gently – you can test regularly for a set, but you want to make sure that you don’t go too far in case the sugar caramelises (then the jam is still edible, but the caramel taste is a little strange!).

And in the end, we mashed the jam up with yoghurt anyway for breakfast. And it was delicious!

For bramble jam:

Wash your berries and place into a saucepan with a few tablespoons of water. Mash some of the fruit, cover the pan, and cook gently until the fruit is soft and the juice comes out of the fruit (around 20 minutes).

Measure the volume of the fruit. Return to the pan, and add three-quarters of the amount of sugar by volume. Stir well, and add lemon juice (roughly one lemon per 500ml of fruit juice), plus the rest of the lemon (if using).

Bring the mixture to the boil, them simmer gently until the jam sets(*). Once ready, remove the scraps of lemon, and pour into sterilised jars(**) and seal.

For apricot jam:

Wash your apricots, remove the stones and cut into quarters. Place into a saucepan with a few tablespoons of water. For every 20 apricots, add a cup of water. Cook the fruit gently until soft and mushy (around 20 minutes).

Optional: Meanwhile, take 5 apricot stones, crack them open and remove the kernels. Put them into a cup, pour over boiling water and leave for 30 seconds. Drain, and peel the seeds. Add these to the apricots. This will give a very subtle bitter almond note to the finished jam.

Measure the volume of the fruit. Return to the pan, and add three-quarters of the amount of sugar by volume. Stir well, and add lemon juice (roughly one lemon per 500ml of fruit juice). Don’t add the scrap pieces of lemon, as they will overpower the apricot flavour.

Bring the mixture to the boil, them simmer gently until the jam sets(***). Once ready, remove the scraps of lemon, and pour into sterilised jam jars and seal.

(*) How to check for a set? Chill a saucer in the fridge. Put a little jam on the cool plate, and return to the fridge for a moment. Push with your finger – if the jam  “wrinkles” when you push it, the jam is done. If it stays liquid, then cook longer and check again later. This is why you are better to cook gently but for a longer time, as if you miss the set, the sugar will start to caramelise, and the jam will be very thick, sticky and syrupy.

(**) How to sterilise jam jars? Wash in hot, soapy water, and then rinse very well – do not dry them. Now place up-side down on the shelf of a cold oven, and heat to 120°C / 250°F for at least 20 minutes. Remove from the oven using gloves, and fill with the jam. You can leave the jars in the oven with the heat turned off until you need them, as this keeps the glass warm, and warm glass is much less likely to crack when you add warm jam (science, eh?). Remember to sterilise the lids by washing in hot, soapy water, then rinsing well and then boiling them in a pot of hot water for a few minutes.

(***) Apricot jam might not set, and instead it just goes very thick. Either add more lemon juice (or liquid pectin, if you have this), or accept that this will be a runny jam and learn to love it. It’s bright orange, how couldn’t you love it?

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Earl Grey Granita

On holiday I was asked to produce a dessert at short notice. While this should not have been a problem in Italy, this was sprung on me after we had been to a market and bought lots of fresh vegetables, but alas, no fruit. So time to think creatively.

I took a look in the cupboards and found one item of use – Earl Grey tea. Quick as a flash, I made a pot of what was effectively a sweet ice tea – Earl Grey, plus agave syrup and lemon juice. Stick in the freezer, and come back every half-hour or so to break up the ice crystals into flakes rather than chunks. Simple.

If you are not familiar with granita, this Italian dessert is a rough version of sorbet. Rather than constantly churning the mixture to ensure a smooth consistency, you positively want the mixture to form into ice crystals. Come back often and stir the mixture lightly with a fork, so that the ice forms into separately crystals, and the resulting granita looks like a pile of glittering precious stones. Pomegranate looks like garnets, coffee grantia like volcanic glass and almond or lemon glitter like quartz. What is really great is that you can make a granita with nothing more sophisticated than a container and a fork. Just the thing when you are staying in a holiday house with none of your usual kitchen armoury to hand.

All in all, this worked like a dream. The weather was hot, but the dessert was cooling, tart and refreshing, providing a great prelude to the limoncello. As a “quick and easy” dessert to keep in the back pocket, this one is pretty good stuff.

For the granita:

• 3 Earl Grey teabags
• 1 litre water
• Up to 200ml agave syrup or 250g sugar, to taste
• juice of 2 lemons

Put the teabags into the cold water and allow to sit for one hour, stirring from time to time. This will extract the flavour without become too strong or bitter.

Remove the teabags, and add the lemon juice and enough sugar and/or agave syrup to taste. You want it to be just slightly sweeter than you would make ice tea, so go with what tastes right, as this will change depending on the sourness of the lemons. Stir well until the syrup and/or sugar has dissolved completely.

Pour into a container and place in the freezer. Keep checking every half hour or so for the mixture to start freezing. Once this happens, each time you check, use a fork to break up the ice crystals. Be gentle – we want them to separate, so be sure not to whisk the mixture. Towards the end, you should have a light, flaky consistency.

Serve in chilled glasses. This also keeps well in the freezer for a couple of days.

Worth making? This recipe was great on a hot day, and can be made with all the things you would have at home (as this is how I invented it!). Easily adaptable to any type of tea (green, jasmine), and can be easily customised with any other flavours or juices you happen to have to hand.

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Holidays II – La Champagne et la douce France

If you’ve been following my posts and tweets about holiday time, you’ll know that I decided to be green, and to travel from Italy to France by train. From Perugia to Milan via Florence, stay the night in Milan, then take the train the next day to Basel, then to Strasbourg, and then to Reims. Two days, five trains (a route something like this). Basta!

I started on that epic overland trip expecting it to descend first into farce, then chaos and finally bitter recrimination, thereby allowing me to write something amusing and entertaining about the trip. But, in the end, it all went like clockwork. All trains were on time, and everything was clean and efficient. So instead, I will just muse on my time in the Champagne region.

Champagne lies to the east of Paris, around the cities of Reims and Epernay. The pretty landscape is rolling rather than dramatic, covered in hills, small towns, forests and, of course, the famous vineyards. We rented a house in the pretty village of Orbais-l’Abbaye.

Ahead of the trip, my friends and I consciously chose to focus on visiting small producers instead of the big names, and we purchased in heroic quantities. You certainly pay less buying champagne in this way, but price is not the point. Visiting the small producers allows you to try different wines and to taste the various varieties and get to know what you prefer. Not that there is anything wrong with Taittinger or Veuve Clicquot but I can easily get them in London. But a bottle of Jean Gimonnet? That’s a different story.

Two of the biggest factors that affect the flavour of the final champagne are the area where the grapes are grown (so you can compare the same type of champagne from different producers) and the types of grapes used to make the champagne (so the same producer makes a number of different drinks). So yes, you need to visit a few different champagne producers – tough, I know! In terms of grape varieties, champagnes are made with combinations of chardonnay, pinot noir and/or pinot meunier. What can be surprising to a lot of people if that the two pinot varieties are actually black grapes. However, as the colour is only in the grape skin, during the pressing process, the producer just takes care not to crush the skins, so that only the clear juice is extracted. Even so, the fuller bodied juice of the darker varieties will be apparent in the finished drink, producing champagnes with a heavier flavour and slightly darker colour. In contrast, if a higher proportion of green chardonnay grapes are used, then you have a lighter, fresher champagne, which is most obvious in the 100% chardonnay blanc des blancs which is a typical bright, floral aperitif champagne. In comparison, the more pinot meunier and/or pinot noir, the more golden the colour of the champagne, with a stronger aroma and more pronounced flavours, such as caramel or baked bread.

So far, so clear. But what about pink champagne? If you don’t get the colour from the grape skins, where does it come from? Well, there are two ways. Either the producer will actually add a little red grape juice at the end of the process anyway, which tints the champagne pink and adds a subtle flavour from the black skins, or the producer uses a proportion of red grape juice right at the start of the fermentation process anyway. In the latter process, the black grape juice has more of an impact on the final colour and taste, with more pronounced red fruit aromas and flavours coming out.

What this visit has shown me is the importance of knowing what you like and why you like it. I’ve been in bars in London where someone had demanded bottles of “big name” champagne, and proceeded to brashly show off while drinking it. I just wonder what their reaction would be it they were faced with a bottle of a small producer’s award-winning vintage champagne? Hmmm…

In addition to all this champagne, there were many dinners and lunches in our holiday house, a marathon bramble picking session, and apricot and bramble jam made from what we found in the area. All sounds divine, right? Well, not quite. The place we stayed…it was a lovely old château, set in beautiful rambling gardens with views of the local abbey, but it had seen better days. The cleaner had been in the service of the owner for the last 35 years, and let’s just say her eye for detail had slipped. Someone (not me!) had to spend two hours upon arrival scrubbing, bleaching and disinfecting, and fly swatting was elevated to something of an Olympic standard. It was difficult to disguise laughs when the cleaner announced that she comes for three hours, three times a week “whether it is necessary or not”. Well, it was necessary. What really irritated me was not that the place needed a darn good clean, de-cluttering and some strategic yet sympathetic modernisation, but that it had the potential to be a truly stunning house which would really showcase the very best of the French countryside. It just needs a little love and care lavished on it. Let’s hope that things change.

With champagne bought and the holiday at an end, the final leg of the trip involved a train trip to Reims and a few hours wandering around the centre. I popped into the fabulous Cafe Waïda for coffee and a little mid-morning snack, and was in awe of their truly amazing cakes and desserts. A very old style of cafe – inside there were matronly women putting tarts, macarons, petit fours and fancy sweets into elaborate bags, and behind them, a sleek-looking art deco interior. I went for tartlette aux mirabelles, and it was sublime.

Next, into the TGV and off to Paris. We arrived, and the heavens opened, so we ducked somewhere for lunch and waited for the sun to arrive. The remainder of the afternoon was very relaxed, just spent wandering in the Marais district, then up past République and on to the canal (seriously – who knew that Paris had a canal?). Just time for a glass of rosé at the bobo Chez Prune before heading to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar back to London. And all of this with way too many bottles, jars and little foodie treats stuffed into my groaning luggage.

I love to travel. And I love to get back home. And I love to sit at home, eating and drinking the things I buy on my travels, remembering those good times.

It’s been a great summer!

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Holidays I – Umbria and Milan

You may or may not have noticed that there have been no posts for a while. This is not because I have given up, but I have been on holiday in some rather rural locations, and thus there has been no access to internet access(*). Funny that even five years ago, getting online while you were on holiday was not a big issue, but now that I am the proud owner of a wireless laptop and an iPhone, I really feel that one of my main connections to the outside world has been severed. A little dramatic maybe, but it feels true!

All of this down time means, of course, that I have had ample time to do things aside from blogging. My first week was spent in the Italian region of Umbria, to the north of Rome (the “middle of the boot”). The capital is the hilltop city of Perugia, but this are is perhaps best know for the picture-perfect town of Assisi and her most famous son, St Francis. The area really does look as you imagine Italy to look – fields of olive trees and corn, fig and walnut trees dotted across the landscape, magnificent Renaissance churches. All the agriculture and the newer buildings are on the flat, fertile valley floor, while older towns are perched precariously on the top of hills. I kept thinking about how people actually built these places, with nothing more than horses, donkeys and carts to bring tones of stone up there. Quite amazing to see.

The weather has been hot (35 degrees hot!) with the occasional thunder storm to break the heat. Air conditioning is not something that seems to be a big part of Italian construction in older buildings, so I just took my lead from the locals – take it easy during the day, avoid too much hot sun, eat a lot of ice-cream and then wait for the evenings to sit outside and enjoy la doce vita. When in the car, it was quite funny to pass through towns that by day looked like time had forgotten them, only to see them come alive with a riot of noise once the sun had set. Whole families out enjoying the warm summer evenings.

As someone who has not really travelled much in Italy (just Venice, Milan and Rome), I was struck by just how, well, Italian these people are. You will see two old Italian farmers sqeeze into a tiny (and I mean tiny) van driving corn to the market. People really do seem to ride those little, chic, 1950s retro cars. There are gelato shops everywhere. And everyone is wearing designer shades. Teenagers, priests, grandmothers. And above all, the Italians are some of the friendliest people I have ever come across. If they speak English, they will happily speak to you for ages about the food they are selling, and if they don’t, they still appreciate you making a bit of an effort. If you’ve got the time, learning some phrases as you travel to Italy will pay off.

So what did I like? Perugia was a nice city, but Assisi was the absolute star. More or less pedestrianised and very well preserved. Stunningly beautiful, and with very friendly people. The ice-cream was, of course, good and the weather perfect. What didn’t I like? The ubiquitous mosquitoes, but they are a bit of a problem all over Europe, so not really something I can hold against Italy specifically!

After this stay in Umbria, we travelled by train up to Milan, with a one hour layover in Florence (enough time to be very efficient, dashing to the main square, looking at the cathedral, buying some cakes from a fancy pastry shop and running back to the station).

Milan in August is two things. Hot and closed. As I was only there for the night, this was not such an issue, but it was clear that most of the locals just avoid the heat altogether, just heading to the lakes by the Swiss border or down to the coast. But for one night, after being in the countryside, Milan was great. Just stroll around the small streets and the large boulevards, eat ice-cream and partake of the local early evening custom, a drink and aperitivo (a buffet of snacks). Many bars offer a selection of these nibbles at the end of the day to which you can help yourself – bruschetta, courgette with parmesan, crudités, etc. We had ours at La Bicyclette, and to accompany this little selection I took an Aperol spritz. At the moment I have no idea what Aperol is, other than this is some sort of Campari-style spirit which is mixed with prosecco and sparkling water. It is luminous orange, but delicious and very drinkable. Thereafter, the evening was spent down by the canals at a pizzeria, before heading to a hotel by the impressive Beaux-Arts Milano Centrale station to get a good night’s sleep before catching the train to Basel.

(*) As I write, I am sitting at the farm of the owner of the house we are renting in France. I am surrounded by a range of poultry in all shapes and sizes. The owner seems to think his chickens need wifi rather than his guests. Ah, la belle France!

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