Monthly Archives: May 2011

Kugelhopf

I recently passed the Gill Wing cookshop in Crouch End, which is always good for picking up a new kitchen implement. Sitting at the front of the store were a selection of ring pans. Given this is about the only thing missing from my collection of trays, I bought one.

Now, what could go in this new pan? Time to explore the culinary delights of France. Not the fancy-pants glamour of Paris. Nope, it’s a little baked item from the eastern border region of Alsace. We’re making a kugelhopf.

For me, this cake has something of a Germanic character, a little reminiscent of a Viennese coffee house, and that’s not surprise when you think about where Alsace is – it’s on the border with Germany, and the regional capital, Strasbourg, has a distinctive style of architecture that is certainly very different from that you would see along the boulevards of Paris or in the towns of the Loire valley. There are some street signs in the local Alsatian tongue (a Germanic rather than a Romance language). Even the wine glasses has a local and distinctive twist – the characteristic green stems, which you can spot on the tables of just about every bistro-style street cafe in Strasbourg. It’s clearly part of France, but it’s a distinctive part of France.

Enough tourism. Let’s go back to kugelhopf. This is something between a bread and a cake. It’s enriched yeast dough with a decent amount of butter and eggs, plus brandy-soaked fruit, almonds, vanilla and lemon zest. It’s a little bit like brioche, but more aromatic and not quite as rich. It gets its distinctive shape from a traditional ring mould – the Alsatians have a special tall pan for making kugelhopf, but (like me!) you can just use a normal ring pan for this. There is also a little tradition of placing a whole almond in each of the dimples in the bottom of the cake pan. I’ve not idea what this represents, but it seems like a nice tradition, and I had a pack of Mallorcan almonds to use for this purpose. If you know the story behind the almonds, do tell!

In making this, I did a bit of experimenting. I followed a “traditional” recipe to the letter, which involved a very elaborate series of steps – creaming butter and sugar, folding in eggs, adding vanilla and lemon zest, and finally working in the yeast, milk and flour by hand. It looked alright, but in the end the texture was most peculiar – a heavy dough with very large gas bubbles, and a peculiar chewiness. Hand-made is nice in theory, but I sensed it was time to try again.

On the second attempt, I embraced modern technology. Good, fresh ingredients, but it all went into the bread machine with fingers crossed, hoping for the best. This time – the dough came out silky-smooth and with a nice elasticity. Once transferred into the pan, it puffed up nicely and baked perfectly. And this time, the texture was great. Fluffy, fruity, moist and tasty. Now, maybe it had something to do with adjusting the mixture to add a little more flour and replacing some of the butter with cream cheese…but whatever it was, it worked!

I’ve seen a variety of ways to finish this cake, all they way up to elaborate frostings and glazes. But in my view, this cake is best with a simple dredging of icing sugar, which imparts a subtle sweetness and complements the fruit, nuts and delicious aroma of baked cakey goodness.

To make a kugelhopf (for a 2.5 litre (4 1/2 pint) tin):

• 120g sultanas
• 2 tablespoons brandy or apple juice
• 2 teaspoons dried (not instant) yeast
• 120ml warm water
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 75g butter
• 30g cream cheese

• 90g caster sugar

• 3 eggs
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon salt
• zest of one lemon
• 475g white bread flour
• 120ml milk
• 75g flaked almonds, chopped
• whole blanched almonds
• icing sugar, to finish

Put the sultanas in a bowl with the brandy or apple juice. Put to one side.

In another bowl, combine the yeast, warm water and the teaspoon of sugar. Mix well and leave for 15 minutes until frothy.

If using a bread machine: put the yeast mixture, butter, cream cheese, sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt, lemon zest, flour and milk into the machine. Run the dough cycle. At the end, work the raisins and almonds into the dough.

If working by hand: put the flour and salt in a large bowl. Rub the butter and cream cheese into the flour mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, vanilla and lemon zest. Add the yeast mixture, the eggs and half the milk – work with your hands until you have a soft, elastic dough – add more milk as needed. Finally, work in the dried fruit almonds. Cover and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.

Once the dough has risen, knock it back. Grease a ring tin with butter, and place a whole almond in each dimple in the tray. Carefully add the dough. Cover and leave in a warm place until the dough reaches the top of the pan. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

Bake the kugelhopf for 45 minutes until golden brown. If the top is getting a little too dark, cover the tin loosely with tin foil.

When the kugelhopf is baked, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tray. Turn out and dredge with icing sugar.

Worth making? This was a spectacular success! I’ve actually made it twice since the original (successful) recipe. It’s also simple to adjust the flavours according to your tastes – experiment with different nuts and dried fruits, orange zest or a little dash of spice. I’m also going to try this in muffin cases to make sweet breakfast rolls. Watch this space for an update!

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Split Pea and Lentil Soup

Oh, we had a shocker of a cold day recently. It has been great – warm and sunny – then wham! It gets nippy and you remember the unpredictability of living in London.

So…I rooted around in the cupboard and found a packet of split peas that had been languishing in the corner. I had bought them a while back to use in a curry from an Anjum Anand recipe , thinking they would make a decent substitute for pigeon peas that she recommended. I thought this on the basis that they look the same and are the same colour.

Well, that particular episode ended in a bit of a disaster – choosing ingredients by colour alone is not a great rule of thumb, as I hadn’t realised that pigeon peas and split peas have significantly different cooking times. So the vegetables were cooked and starting to get soft while the peas remained stubbornly hard. I had not choice but to cook until the peas were soft, and it did all break down into a tasty spicy broth, but I’ve since started making that particular curry recipe with yellow lentils (cooking time – around 20 minutes – and it’s de-lish!).

But back to the languishing split peas…for a cold day, what could be more fitting than split pea soup? This time, armed with the knowledge that these can be pesky little critters to cook, I left them to soak overnight. I’m not sure that this is entirely necessary, but it worked so if you’re not in a hurry, go with the soak. I also paired this up with some yellow lentils. The theory was that the lentils would break down as the soup cooks, and leave the split peas whole (but this time – hopefully cooked!) for a bit of texture.

I thought about whether I should spice this recipe up. Curry? Cumin? Coriander? All possible, but in the end I just added a little freshly ground black pepper and left the flavour of the peas as the main highlight of this soup. I might play around with the flavouring when I make this again, but I thought it was rather delicious just as it is.

It was perfect for a slightly more inclement weather, with a drizzle of olive oil and a few croutons on top for some crunch.

And the next day, the hot weather came back!


To make Split Pea and Lentil Soup:

• 150g yellow split peas
• 150g yellow or red lentils
• 2 large onions
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1.5 litres water
• 1 stock cube

Leave the split peas to soak overnight in cold water. Drain the next day.

Peel and finely chop the onions. Put the onions, olive oil and pepper in large saucepan and fry over a low heat until the onions are soft and slightly browned.

Add the drained peas, lentils and water. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a low heat and simmer for 1 hour until the lentils break down and the peas are soft. After the first 30 minutes, add the stock cube and stir well.

Just before serving, check the seasoning and adjust

Worth making? Get past the time for soaking, and this is a very easy and tasty soup which takes very little effort. It’s great on its own, or can be boosted with a little spice.

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Kiss Kiss!

Remember this song from many, many summers ago?

Yes, a very tenuous link to today’s post subject – meringue kisses. I had to make something for after dinner. Too hot to make truffles, too lazy to make baklava. So I made meringue, piped it and dusted it with cocoa. And don’t they look sweet?


The mixture is a simple Swiss meringue – egg white and sugar, whisked over a bain marie, and then cooked in a very, very slow oven. I also added a tiny pinch of cream of tartar and a couple of drops of white wine vinegar, so the resulting cookies are crisp on the outside, but stay soft and a little chewy on the inside. And I don’t think they took more than 10 minutes to make. So not much more to say, other than here are a few more photos to admire!

To make meringue kisses (makes around 40):

• 2 egg whites (should be 60g)
• 100g caster sugar
• pinch of cream of tartar
• 2-3 drop of vinegar
• 2-3 drops vanilla extract
• Cocoa powder or cinnamon (optional)

Preheat the oven to 70°C (160°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

Put all the ingredients except the cocoa/cinnamon in a bowl and beat lightly. Put the bowl over a pan of just-simmering water, and beat with an electric whisk for 4-5 minutes until the mixture is white, light and fluffy – it should hold stiff peaks.

Fill a piping bag with the meringue, and pipe out the cookies(*). Dust very lightly with cocoa powder or cinnamon, if using.

Bake for 45 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the cookies in the oven for another 30 minutes. (**)

(*) Use a plain nozzle. Technique is to squeeze out a dome of the meringue, stop squeezing, then pull the nozzle right up from the mixture – it should then form a little “point”

(**) If the oven is too hot, the cookies will split and bubble open. The aim is really to dry them rather than bake them – remember, you will have cooked the egg white over the double boiler.

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Chickpea and Herb Salad

Summertime…and the living is easy….

…and standing next to the stove is not really appealing. Quick, light and fresh are the words of the moment, so here is a chickpea salad which hopefully ticks all these boxes, and is healthy to boot. So it’s a quick post for a quick dish.

The idea behind this is pretty much based on the ingredients in hummus, but rather than purée the lot, things are just mixed in a bowl, and each ingredient is allowed to shine through. Then just throw in a little spice and some fresh herbs, and you’re done. If you want to jazz things up, add some toasted pine nuts or almonds or a little Parmesan or feta cheese. The recipe can also be made vegan-friendly by skipping the yoghurt.

Easy!

To make chickpea and herb salad:

• 2 x 400g tins of chick peas
• 3 tablespoons lemon juice
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon tahini
• 1 tablespoon natural yoghurt
• ½ teaspoon paprika(*)
• ½ teaspoon ground cumin
• Handful of chopped herbs (chives, basil, mint, oregano…)
• 2 large lettuce leaves, finely shredded

Rinse the chickpeas, pick out any black ones, and leave to drain.

In a bowl, combine the lemon juice, olive oil, tahini, yoghurt, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper and mix well. Taste the sauce and adjust according to your preferences.

Add the chickpeas, 2/3 of the chopped herbs and the shredded lettuce. Toss the salad until everything is coated.

Just before serving, scatter the rest of the chopped herbs over the salad.

Worth making? This is a very easy dish to make either as a main or a side, and can be endlessly adapted depending on what you’ve got in the cupboard.

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Marvposteier (Norwegian Almond Tarts)

Hey hey, it’s almost the 17th May – and that’s Norwegian National Day. It’s on this day that the people of Norway like to let you know that they are very, very proud of being Norwegian, rather than Swedish or Danish. So that means lots of flags, parades, drinking and food.

So if you’re in the mood to celebrate, here are two options. If you’re inclined to the savoury, try making lefse (potato flatbreads), but if you prefer sweet, then try marvposteier. These are little almond cakes in a pastry case and topped off with a cross. Something like this:

This was my first time making them, so I am not sure that I can hold myself out as any sort of authority (given…I’m not remotely Norwegian), but they were pretty straightforward. They remind me a little of macaroon tarts, which have a similar almond filling, but with a bit of jam in the bottom. I wonder if they might be related?…

The process is easy, so you actually end up with a pretty impressive result for minimal effort. It’s just a basic butter pastry, filled with an almond paste, and then if you’ve got the nerve and patience, finished with pastry crosses. In my opinion, it’s worth adding the crosses.

I was happy with how these looked and tasted. The filling is just sugar, egg white and almonds (which I enhanced with a couple of drops of almond extract), so after baking they  are pleasantly soft and marzipan-like. All in all – kjempegod (as they might say in Oslo).

So to the Norwegians out there – hope you’re having a great day!

To make Marvposteier (around 25):

For the pastry:

• 250g plain flour
• 200g butter
• 50g (3 tablespoons) caster sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• 3 tablespoons cold water

For the filling:

• 200g ground almonds
• 250g icing sugar
• 4 egg whites, lightly beaten (about 130g)
• 1/4 teaspoon almond essence (optional)

Start with the pastry: put the flour, sugar and butter in a bowl. Rub together until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg and a spoonful of water. Use your hands to mix, adding more water if needed until you have a soft, smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Grease a couple of muffin pans with some butter.

Roll the pastry out very thinly. Cut out circles with a cutter, and use to line the muffin pans(*). Keep any scraps of pastry.

Next, make the filling. Put the almonds, icing sugar, egg whites and almond essence (if using) in a bowl and mix will into a smooth paste. Fill each tart with a teaspoon of the filling, then shake the muffin pans lightly so the filling evens out.

Roll out the scraps of pastry and cut into thin strips. Use the strips to form an X on top of each tart, and make sure you press the ends into the pastry cases. Brush the X with a little egg white (use your fingers for this) (**)

Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack until completely cooled.

(*) You want these pastry “shells” to be about 1.5cm (2/3 inch) deep.

(**) Handy hint – rather than use another egg here, just check the bowl you used to beat the egg whites – there should be just enough left in the bottom to glaze the X on each tart.

Wroth making? These tarts were really rather easy to make and still very tasty. The can also easily be made in a gluten-free version by replacing the plain flour with a gluten-free alternative. You can also customise them by using other ground nuts (such as hazelnuts) or adding a little jam to the bottom of each tart before covering with the filling.

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Holiday Pastries! Mallorcan Ensaïmades

As you might now be aware, I had a really great holiday on Mallorca…but there is just one little niggle…

…you see, they have a rather amazing-looking pastry over there – the ensaïmada – which is a sweet, enriched bread, formed into a coil and dusted with icing sugar. The problem? Well, they are made with a good lump of…lard.

Indeed, the clue is in the name – “saïm” is the local name for a type of reduced lard, so they translate roughly as “lard things”. So a case of “look, but don’t touch”.

For better or for worse, I found this out before I went, so of course, once I was out and about, the things were everywhere. Ensaïmades beckoning from every bakery, every café, every shop. Kids wandering the streets munching on the things. I was even handed one in the airport wine store as a souvenir. So it’s very, very lucky I have a will of iron.

Now firmly back in the UK, and with all the excitement of the Royal Wedding behind us, I decided that I would give these a try myself, but make a vegetarian version of them. So I’ve replaced the lard with butter and a bit of olive oil. So maybe not exactly healthy, but heck – I resisted for a week!

The process for making them is pretty easy and quite good fun, but it just takes a while. You start off making a dough, which I did by hand (and ended up with very sore arm muscles in the process). Once the dough has risen once, you knock it back, then roll out portions as thin as you can, brush with soft butter, then roll them up and form into spirals. I’ve done a little research, and I have concluded that lard probably works best, so if that’s your thing, then go for it. However, my butter version is still pretty darned nice, if not quite as flaky as the authentic Mallorcan version.

And the shaping process is also important – the dough needs to be as thin as possible, so when they bake, you get maximum puffiness and volume. And you need to let the rolled up dough rise first, then carefully coil it loosely afterwards – you really want the breads to be big but quite flat, rather than a round dome shape. Make sense?

Once they were kneaded, brushed, shaped and risen, they went into the oven, and emerged puffy and golden. I gave them a quick brush with more melted butter (yay!) and a dredging of icing sugar later, and they looked absolutely perfect.

But looks are not everything – finally I was going to get to taste an ensaïmada.

Happily, I can report that mine were delicious. Rich, slightly sweet and very, very buttery. The process for making them means that they are a delight to pull apart as you are eating them too, so perfect for people who are partial to playing with their food. I like to do that.

To make 12 ensaïmadas:

For the dough:

• 4 teaspoons dried yeast
• 240ml milk, boiled and cooled
• 100g white sugar
• 450g flour
• 1 teaspoon salt

• 2 large eggs, beaten
• 40ml olive oil
• 170g butter, softened

To finish the ensaïmades:

• 25g butter
• 50g icing sugar

To make the dough:

By hand: Combine the yeast, 2 tablespoons of white sugar and warm milk and allow to sit for 15 minutes until frothy. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt and remaining sugar. Pour the yeast mixture into the flour and mix as much as you can (it will be very dry). Add the eggs and olive oil, and work until you have a smooth, soft, elastic dough (about 10 minutes). Once the dough is made, cover the dough with a damp cloth and leave somewhere warm until doubled in size (around 1 hour).

By machine: Combine the yeast, 2 tablespoons of white sugar and warm milk and allow to sit for 15 minutes until frothy. Put the yeast, flour, salt, remaining sugar, eggs and olive oil into the bread machine and run the dough cycle.

To form the ensaïmades:

Knock back the dough and knead again for a minute. Divide the dough into 12 portions. Roll each portion as thin as possible (as in – really, really thin). Brush each generously with softened butter. Roll up the dough (Swiss-roll style) and put on a baking sheet. Cover with a damp cloth and leave until doubled in size (around 1 hour).

Next, take each piece of rolled-up dough, and form into a loose coil (gaps will be filled when they rise again). Transfer each coil to a well-greased baking sheet. Cover with a damp cloth or a piece of oiled cling film and leave until – you guessed – doubled in size.

To bake the ensaïmades:

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Put hot water in an ovenproof dish and put in the oven to create steam.

Bake the ensaïmades until they are golden brown (about 15 minutes). Once cooked, remove from the oven, allow to cool for a few minutes, then brush lightly while still warm with melted butter and dredge with icing sugar.

Worth making? They might be a lot of work, but they are fun and taste really good. I will be making these again, more likely for a special occasion than for an everyday breakfast, but a nice way to bring a little Mallorcan sunshine to the early mornings. If you’re so minded, you can also change them with a dusting of cocoa powder in the filling, or add cinnamon or raisins.

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On Location: Genestar (Alcúdia, Mallorca)

More on Mallorca! But this time, less tourism, more some sharing a little bit of the restaurant scene.

Palma has its fair share of fancy places, and I am sure any visitor there land on their feet if they want to, so I’ve plumped for one that is slightly further afield, in the very pretty northern town of Alcúdia. This is just a hop, skip and jump from tourist-focussed beach resorts, but this town is smart, chic and clearly trying to go rather up-market. This was fully apparent to me when I popped into a deli to buy some local produce, and left many, many Euro lighter. But Alcúdia…now, I fully understand that this is not the sort of place that you’re likely to be passing (compared to places in London or Brussels) but then again, isn’t it nice to have a few gems tucked away for that day that you do happen to find yourself in this part of the world? Here is one such gem.

My pick is the rather space-age sounding Genestar. At first, I puzzled about the moniker. What could it mean? As it turns out, it’s simply the name of the chef, the magnificently-named Joan Josep Genestar Amengual (think Joan as in “Juan”, not Collins). In all likelihood, I was pronouncing Genestar incorrectly too.

Our Joan is not a hands-off, back-room man. For it was he who took the booking, where I flagged that I was veggie and would this be an issue. He came to greet us at the table, explained the menu, advised us about wines and indulged all the questions we had, and played the roles of host and chef magnificently. Now, it’s probably a lot easier to come out and talk about the food when you don’t have a menu, for Genestar’s concept is that you come, you’re taken care of, and you enjoy a tasting menu. Perfect for those days when you don’t want to choose, and want to be marched somewhere and told what to do. Except that here, it is all done with flair and friendliness, all in lovely surroundings. And it is great to hear about the food from the guy that’s gone to all the effort of preparing it.

Most interestingly of all, at least to me, was that Joan was not in the least fazed by the fact that I wanted to eat vegetarian. In a place that is as meat and fish friendly as Mallorca, this could have been an issue. Not here. Joan seemed to take to it as a challenge, and the results were delicious. Of which more later.

But before the food, the wine! Joan was an enthusiastic promoter of local wines, and there was one on the menu that caught my eye – a White Merlot. As he was telling us what we would be eating (we were being told, this was no process of selection!), he recommended a couple of other whites, but I just couldn’t resist. How was the white Merlot? Oh, it’s very good. But it is unique. Some people find it too unusual, but it is very good. You should try it is you would like to, but if it’s not your thing, we can change it. Now, that is something a few placed in London could learn from. It was a constant theme here, but on Mallorca, it seems people are genuinely enthusiastic about their products, and are willing to stand behind them. The wine came, and it was indeed excellent, and it was quickly decided that we would not be sending this back. It had a light golden colour and a noticeable richness of aroma and flavour. It was a white wine with gusto, a noticeable robustness and a lot of the brioche-quality you get with some champagnes made from red grapes. I loved it. Thank goodness they were also selling bottles of it in the airport.

What I do suspect is that while I was not the first vegetarian to visit Genestar, I may be the pickiest. No fish, but also no eggs on their own (i.e. not scrambled, boiled or fried). Cue a little head scratching at first, but our friend Joan just saw it as a challenge and vanished into the kitchen to produce some good things to eat.

Before the meal started to arrive, we were given some fresh rolls and a little local olive oil and sea salt. You get this in London, but here…it just tasted better. Maybe because it’s holiday, maybe because the weather is warm…but it was unusually tasty. And yes, I ended up buying a bottle of the local olive oil later when I popped back to that deli.

First course was a light salad with grilled vegetables, nuts and a simple olive oil dressing and topped with fresh herbs. Incredibly simple, but beautifully presented and packing a real flavour punch. Smooth buttery lettuce, toasted nuts, tangy tomatoes and rich oil.

The next course was pasta with artichokes and mushrooms. Sounds simple. Sounds boring even. But no! Frankly, I do not think my picture does this one justice – partly due to the light, and mainly due to the fact I was aware that this was a nice place and I didn’t want to be that person spending the whole meal taking pictures of it rather than enjoying it. This might have been a simple dish, but utterly delicious. These were the freshest, most tasty baby artichokes I have ever had – lightly grilled so they just had a subtle smokiness, but kept a little crunch too. Again, the simplicity meant the flavours were there to be fully enjoyed. And it went well with the wine too.

To follow this, there was a substantial bruschetta-type affair piled high with mushrooms, tomatoes and beansprouts, all on an rich emulsified buttery sauce. Again, not sure that my picture really does it justice, as it was a lovely combination of flavours and textures, and it certainly looked impressive on the plate (note to self: candlelight is not good for pictures…). I liked that this contrasted with the previous course too, moving from simple to more fancy.

And to finish, the dessert was a Mallorcan take on bread and butter pudding, a little piece of some sort of pastry, dipped in custard and baked until the top was a crisp caramel. Finish with a dash of cold custard sauce and some strawberries, and it was a the perfect bite-sized sweet end to the meal. Well, it was once it was augmented with a little glass of dessert wine. Hey, it was a holiday! What I very much liked was the dinky size – I think this is the way to finish off a meal, just a little something sweet rather than a wedge of cake.

Mid-way through the meal, something struck me. There were very few tourists in the place, and the foreigners here were obviously people who have moved to the area. Then, around 9, it suddenly became very, very busy as the locals descended in droves. In pairs, groups of four and very, very large groups. The atmosphere was buzzy and lively, but never too busy or noisy. This was clearly the place to come to enjoy of good night with friends and excellent food. Knowing somewhere is a hit with the locals is always a boon to me!

So, just in case there is any doubt, I absolutely loved this place. The host and the staff were super-friendly (and found my basic bumbling Spanish rather amusing), the decor is clean, modern and bright, and the food excellent, excellent value, and rather unexpected in a rather touristy part of the island. Would I go back? In a shot. My only regret is that this is one of the nicest new places I have been to for some time, and yet it’s so far away…so if you do happen to be passing, it’s worth stopping in. But if you’re veggie, just call ahead first. And ask for Joan. And say hi.

Genestar, 1 Plaça Porta de Mallorca, Alcúdia, Mallorca.  Tel: 971.549.157 / 630.039.169. Email: info@genestarestaurant.com

LondonEats locations map here.

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Holiday Drinks – Pomada

Goodness, is it pomada o’clock already?

A phrase that you might hear if you are in one of the Balearic Islands on a warm afternoon. Pomada is the perfect drink for warm weather – ice-cold local gin from Menorca, mixed with cloudy lemonade. Very simple and quite delicious, as well as being dangerously more-ish (the full effect not really felt until you are four in, so to be consumed in moderaton).

Now, I hear you ask, what is this Menorcan gin of which you speak? Surely gin is something from the north of Europe, and more specifically, Britain? Well, it becomes a little clearer when you look at the history of Mallorca’s eastern neighbour. Back in the 18th Century (following the War of Spanish Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, to be exact if you’re a bit of a history geek), Britain was “given” the island of Menorca. Part of the navy was promptly moved there. Nice posting for the sailors, but they had a bit of a weakness for gin, and that wasn’t something that was very easy to come by.

How to cure that? The locals started making their version of the stuff, infused with the local herbs on the island. When the Brits finally left, the tradition had firmly taken root, and they’ve been making the stuff ever since. The leading brand today is Xoriguer (sho-ri-gair), which comes in a pleasingly retro bottle.

So when they sun is shining, sit back, relax, get out the glasses and ice and mix up a glass. Or four.

To make pomada:

• 1 part gin (Xoriguer brand, if you’ve recently been on holiday…)
• 3 parts lemonade
• ice
• slice of lemon

Fill a highball glass with ice. Add the gin, lemonade and lemon slice. Stir well. Relax, enjoy and repeat as needed.

Worth making? Tens of thousands of Menorcans can’t be wrong, and this is a great drink for a hot, lazy summer day in the park. If you’re feeling fancy, go a little more upmarket with pink lemonade which seems to be appearing all over the place in London at the moment.

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Holiday Time – the Island of Mallorca

Ah, we’re just finished what seemed like back-to-back public holidays, so of course, that meant that it was also time for a bit of a getaway. I left London behind (with the intention to return in time for the Royal Wedding) and spent a week on Mallorca, with most of the time in the north of the island, and a couple of days in the southern capital, Palma.

If Mallorca doesn’t say anything to you, you’re either (1) not from Europe; or (2) not living in Europe. It’s the largest of the Balearic Islands, off the eastern coast of Spain and in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Mallorca (mah-york-a) is famous for it’s clear blue seas, sandy beaches and some rather notorious tourism – which is why we all know it. Well, that last one is not entirely fair. Mallorca has made huge efforts to go all posh, and now boasts exclusive upmarket villas and offers a lot to the more discerning visitor. Yes, time to put away the bucket and spade and think traditional foods, local drinks and some interesting places to visit.

Now, let’s be honest. I expected to spend the best part of the Easter weekend on a beach, reading and eventually retreating to the shade of the pine trees that line the coast when I had had too much sunshine. But…that was not to be.

The weather was, for the first three days, what we like to call “changeable”. This meant it changed from mist to cloud to rain, and then occasionally the sun would make an appearance. Meanwhile, it was pushing 30 degrees back home, which I knew because my friends were sending emails of themselves basking in the sunshine of Hyde Park.

However, I had rented a car and headed inland to see the mountains. One of the most surprising things about Mallorca is just how varied the landscape it – high mountains in the west (with precarious roads that need to be navigated very, very slowly!) to inland plains and sandy beaches. In the extreme north, the coast gets very rugged, with dramatic rock formations jutting out of the sea. As you can see below, the coastlines are many and varied.

In my view, one of the most spectacular parts of the island is the Cap de Formentor, where a truly tiny road snakes through pine forests up to sheer cliffs and on to the lighthouse at the end of the island (bottom two pictures). Quite breathtaking.

Breathtaking, and rather alarming to drive along! Thank goodness the car was about the smallest and most nimble on offer in the rental place. There was no chance of getting a BMW or a Hummer round those hairpin bends! But you need to get up into the hills to see some of the most spectacular scenery and some truly beautiful monasteries and churches. Well worth it.

With the mountains explored, and still very grateful for the tiny car (which turned out to be small enough to park anywhere in the most narrow streets imaginable), it was time for a bit of a change of scene. It wasn’t getting beach-hot yet, so we headed inland to the area known as Es Pla (literally “the plain”).

This is the fertile, agricultural heart of the island. Bumbling around the small towns that dot this landscape, I managed to mangle everything in Spanish as well as the local Catalan. It might look easy written down, but I got pretty tongue-tied, and soon discovered that a big smile and mastery of gracias will still get you pretty darn far. Say it in Catalan (gràcies) and you get a little further. Interesting!

So what are the foody highlights? Mallorca is known for its almonds (the flat, sweet, round variety). These are recorded as far back as Roman times, and even today there are many varieties that are apparently unique to Mallorca. Boom time came when the island’s vines were affected by the phylloxera plague  more than 100 years ago – farmers moved over to almonds, and a new industry took off. Almonds make appearances in perfume, as well as a tasty cake – gató d’ametlla – made with almonds and oranges, and served with almond ice-cream. It’s big, fluffy and delicious.

Another, perhaps more glossy, sophisticated and modern item is sea salt, which is produced in the south of the island around Ses Salines. This is what the locals call flor de sal, literally “sea blossom salt” which is prepared by filtering sea water, and leaving it in outdoor “lakes” and allowing the hot sun to do its work. The crystals are then harvested as they appear. This salt is valued for its higher-than-usual mineral content, and comes all packed in rather attractive, modern packaging (like these). What’s not to like?

Nearby Menorca also makes one rather major claim to fame – that mayonnaise was invented there and is named after its capital, Maó (formerly known as Mahón). Salsa mahonesa. See it? Of course the French don’t agree, but I like the Spanish version of events. In any event, Mallorca today has a very tasty garlic sauce, allioli, which tastes sublime with patatas bravas. So tasty that I didn’t care how much I stank of garlic.

And no piece about Mallorcan food is complete without the ensaïmada…but more of them another day. I’m sure you can guess what I’m up to.

Yes, the Es Pla area is really rather lovely, and here, amid the corn, oats, fruit orchards, olive groves…rather excitingly…you see a lot of vineyards! Wine! Yes, Mallorca makes wine!

As Mallorca is not so large, it doesn’t produce the huge amounts of wine that are needed for bulk production and export. However, there are some decent types, and it’s worth doing a little exploration and trying a bit of the local production.

We popped in to Bodegues Ca’n Ramis in the pretty town of Sencelles, and also picked up a few bottles of the award-winning AN/2 wine from Anima Negra. But perhaps most exciting of all, in one restaurant, I spied a bottle of white Merlot from the Son Prim estate.

I asked the chef for a wine recommendation to go with the meal, and he suggested another Mallorcan white, but I couldn’t resist asking about this white Merlot. Would it go with the dish? He was rather taken aback, said that it was actually his first preference, but that as it was quite unusual, he didn’t think we would like it. So much so, that he even said we could send back the whole bottle if we didn’t like it. Happily, we took the plunge, and it was great. It had a very apparent richness, a sort of buttery quality and depth of flavour that you don’t (or I don’t) usually associate with a white wine. Lucky this was also on sale in a wine shop, so I’ve now got a bottle hidden away at home.

If all that wine isn’t quite enough, at the end of the day and after all that wine tasting, you can also sit back in the heat and enjoy a glass of pomada made with a type of gin from the neighbouring island of Menorca….but more of that some other time (again, you can guess…). Suffice to say, to many can be dangerous.

Around the rest of Es Pla, it’s just a case of pottering around and taking in pretty villages, cafés, restaurants and fields of fruit, vegetables and goats. The attractive town of Artà is home to many artists, and the beaches along the bay of Muro are long, sandy and go from dunes into a bright blue sea. Really, picture perfect.

Later in the week, the sun did finally make an appearance, and it became proper beach weather. While Mallorca might heave in the middle of summer, it is perfect in April. Long stretches of sand, not too busy, and (realising that this is sounding repetitive) lots of bays with clear, azure water. Swimming was….possible, but it did take a while to get acclimatised to the still somewhat fresh waters of the Med. The old story – chilly at first, but fine once you’re in.

The area we stayed in was a little on the touristy side, but it was a hope, skip and jump (or, more accurately, 5 euro in a taxi) to the incredibly scenic town of Alcúdia, which boasts a couple of lovely squares and a clutch of very decent restaurants. This was all the more amazing given that this was not all that far from some of the more extremely “all inclusive” tourist traps. I find it odd that people sometimes don’t want to venture just a few more minutes to somewhere more pleasant, but it’s nice to feel a little smug as you are sitting on a shady plaza sipping the local drink.

And to round off the trip – all that time in the countryside, by the sea and in small towns was nice, but I had to spend a couple of sun-soaked days checking out the Mallorcan capital, Palma. It’s a pleasant place – the skyline is dominated by the cathedral which juts out of the old town. There are plenty of leafy avenues and grand buildings with high-end stores and a large number of bakeries selling ensaïmadas. And, rather helpfully, it’s got a lot of very classy bars for a drink in the evening (such as the excellent Nicolás on Plaza Mercat), as well as lots of good restaurants. The up-and-coming neighbourhood of La Ljota has some interesting places to eat, which tended to be rammed with locals as well as a few more adventurous tourists. I also popped in to the Mercat Olivar, which the guide book dismissed as being of no interest, but it was a treasure trove of little shops and stalls selling just about any item of food you can imagine. I’ve got a little something from there I’ll post shortly, but let that be a lesson – the guidebook often ain’t right!

Much to my delight, the trees all over the city were also sporting jaunty little oranges. I always find it amazing that they are left handing on the trees, as they look so tempting, and are just asking to be picked. However, I did restrain myself from taking them, just as I managed to resist reaching over the fences of houses all over the island and taking lemons from their trees. Can’t imagine that a little Mallorcan granny would have been too impressed to see my hands reaching over her garden wall…

And finally, something that is bound to appeal to animal lovers out there.

Mallorca seems to have a very, very big number of cats. These creatures seem to be everywhere. Towns, countryside, shops, cafés, tourist hotspots, church steps…all lazing around in the sun, and tolerating the occasional pat from a passing visitor.

All in all, a great little trip. Now, can you guess what sort of things I will be blogging about for the next few days? Hmmm…

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