Monthly Archives: September 2011

Tarte aux Mirabelles

I recently became the proud owner of a pile of mirabelle plums. They looked so cute – a rich golden colour, tinged with crimson, and the size of cherries.

They are the sort of fruit that you can pop into your mouth one after another, absolutely delicious and so sweet. The sort of fruit that is also lovely in a tart!

After eating a couple of them, an odd thought struck me too – as sweet and sunny as they were, this was also another sign that summer is drawing to an end. Sure, we’ve been drenched recently, and at work we have gathered around the window a couple of times to debate if it is raining or sleeting. But then, the next day, the weather improves and we enjoy a couple of warm September days.

While the weather is busy flip-flopping, and I am debating whether it’s a day for just a shirt or full winter jacket plus scarf, there is no doubt that the new produce in the shops does mark the steady march towards Autumn. You know that before long, the mornings will be getting cooler, the evenings longer and darker, and those occasional downpours will go from the exception to the norm.

I do actually very much like Autumn – there are few things that can beat a walk in the woods with the leaves turning, especially the damp forest smell of wet leaves in cool sunlight. So as we move into this season, here is a little tart to celebrate the last of the summer goodies.

This really is a very simple version of the classic French dessert. There are a few different versions, ranging from something akin to a clafoutis (just drown the plums in custard and bake), to pastry shells with varying amounts of fruit and custard, to simple galettes with sliced plums arranged on puff pastry and permitted to shine without much additional fuss other than a light sprinkling of sugar.

This version involves a pastry shell, but I have used a high proportion of butter and a little baking powder, which makes it very light and crumbly, more like a shortbread than a pastry. This balances the filling – sweet, juicy mirabelles, enrobed in a custard-like filling of cream, sugar and eggs. To complement the plums, I added the lightest hint of vanilla extract and almond extract. Completely optional, but they add a nice background note. If you do add them, use with restraint – too much will overpower the fruit.

Of course, mirabelles are not a very common fruit in Britain, so the chances to make this tart will be rather limited. However, fret not. I would be willing to bet that this would also work very well with cherries. But no promises – I’ve yet to try that variation.

This recipe relies on the fruit to provide sweetness – if you prefer your desserts to be on a scale than induces a sugar rush, then by all means tweak the quantities in the custard filling. Also do taste the fruit – it the plums are not so sweet, then add more sugar. Spices may also work rather well – a touch of cinnamon or cloves, each of which goes wonderfully with plums.

To finish the tart, you can either leave it as it is or dust very lightly with icing sugar. This works really well, as where the plums as peeking out of the filling, the sugar dissolves, showing off the bright orange colour of the fruit.

Ah yes, oranges and golden browns. These are shades that we will be getting very familiar with over the coming weeks. Autumn is almost here, so time to dig out the scarves, winter jackets and gloves, and start enjoying long walks in the forest. And look forward to a slice of tart when you’re back indoors.

To make a tarte aux mirabelles:

For the pastry:

• 150g butter, cold
• 250g plain flour

• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 75g icing sugar

Cut the butter into cubes. In a large bowl, rub the butter into the flour and baking powder until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in the icing sugar. Keep working until the mixture forms a soft dough – if necessary, add teaspoons of ice-cold water to help the mixture bind.

Wrap the pastry in cling film and leave to chill for 30 minutes.

Roll out the chilled dough and use to line a 20cm (8 inch) loose-bottomed flan dish. As the pastry is very buttery, you might find you end up cutting it into pieces, then patching it together in the tin and pressing together with your hands. Try to get the pastry to just over 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) thick – you probably won’t need all of it.

Prick the base with a fork, and bake in the oven at 180°C for 10 minutes.

For the filling:

• 500g mirabelles, washed and de-stoned (*)
• 100ml double cream
• 25g ground almonds
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 25g butter, melted and cooled
• few drops of vanilla extract
• few drops almond extract

Arrange the de-stoned mirabelles in the pastry shell.

In a bowl, mix the remaining ingredients until the mixture is smooth. Pour over the fruit. Bake for a further 30 minutes at 180°C (350°F) until golden on top.

(*) To de-stone: either cut in half and remove the stones, or use a cherry pitter to remove the stones. Or alternatively, leave the stones in and warn your guest to eat with caution!

Worth making? I won’t lie – de-stoning mirabelle plums is not much fun, but this is actually a relatively simple tart to make, and one which does look great when served. The whole plums peeking out of the filling also look very impressive.

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…and a wedding in Helsinki

The week before, it was Dublin.

A few days later, I was in the airport, watching for the BA flight to Helsinki. Leaving early evening, but with a three-hour flight and a time difference, I was arriving at about midnight. Of course, none of this mattered – what did matter is that our friend Frank was getting hitched, and a bunch of us were heading off to the Finnish capital for the wedding.

Helsinki is the kind of place that people know about, but typically have not visited. OK, it’s not Paris or Rome, but it does offer some beautiful architecture, culture, great food, good nightlife and incredibly friendly people. And of course, on this trip, each part was to be tested in equal measure.

Now, I wasn’t doing the sensible thing and taking a long holiday that lasted all of August. So this trip merited a few special touches, and that included staying in the very stylish Klaus K design hotel. This is a place, dotted with lots of nods to Finnish design (Iittala glassware, blond wood) but without doubt the highlight was the “organic breakfast”. When I checked in, I asked what time breakfast was open until, and winced slightly when the receptionist said only until 10:00…

She noticed my reaction. “It is a very good breakfast, worth getting up for” she added with a smile. And frankly, she was absolutely right. There was a great choice of granola, seeds, fruit, yoghurt and dried forest blueberries to start, followed by a selection of breads, local cheeses, pickles and a fantastic mushroom salad (honestly, I went on about it for about two days…). There was even a list accompanied with a little map showing where in Finland the various goodies were from. But without doubt, the two things I could not get enough of were made with sea buckthorn. The juice was delicious – it was mixed with apple, and tasted something like mango and pine (the tree!) – I think I had about four glasses each morning for breakfast. There was also sea buckthorn jam, a bright orange colour, which was enjoyed in copious amounts piled high on top of buttered bread. I quickly realised that I was going to have to keep an eye out for something with sea buckthorn to take back home.

With a free day before the wedding, a bit of sightseeing was in order. There are two things you notice quite quickly: the lack of an old town with winding streets, and the presence of lots of very grand streets and a grid-like street layout. This is down the fact that the city was heavily rebuilt in the 19th century, leading to the open, airy feeling that makes the city perfect to explore on foot.

The sun was shining, and first thing to do was wander down to the waterfront, where you can see the boats to Sweden in the distance. There is something about ferries that is much more romantic than an airport – people checking in for a voyage across the seas. I did the trip from Helsinki to Stockholm a couple of years ago, but it was the middle of winter, and I really must do it again in summer when you can relax on the deck with a couple of beers and watch the thousands of islands that make up the Helsinki archipelago drift by…

By the water, you come to Kauppatori (Market Square).

Sure, one end of the market had a lot of stuff aimed at the cruise ship crowd…but…the other end was, quite simply, amazing. There was a fantastic selection of Finnish food and fresh product – pastries, cakes, fruit, forest berries and piles and piles of mushrooms. Forget the little punnets of blueberries you get in the supermarket, here the were selling them by the scoop. Stunning colours and wonderful aromas. I loved the very “Finnishness” of the berries on sale – lots of puolukka (lingonberries) and mustikka (blueberries).

At the market, I was also delighted to find a stall selling sea buckthorn jam. They were offering two varieties – normal and sugar-free. I went with the normal variety as, well, it tasted better. If you’re going to come all the way to Helsinki to buy jam, buy the good stuff!

After the market, it was time for a wander along the esplanade to check out a little bit of Finnish design. There is a general “Nordic design” look to a lot of it (clean lines, more blond wood, glass…) but a lot of strong Finnish brands that stand out. Iittala is a favourite – known for softly angular glassware, and these funky whisky tumblers with a birch-bark pattern on the outside. Yes, I bought them. Yes, I probably paid more than I would have paid in London. But I got to buy them in a lovely shop which was decorated with pictures of the Moomins. Got to be worth it, surely?

The afternoon was wrapped up with a stroll along the southern coastline of the city, dotted with parks and marinas. From here, keep heading due south and the next stop is Tallinn in Estonia.

That evening, there was an informal get-together at the happy couple’s apartment. However, our little group had not eaten, but a garbled phone conversation between a Dutchman and a German revealed that there was an old church on the square opposite their apartment, which had since been converted into a restaurant. Apparently, it served great food and was large enough that we could safely turn up without a booking. Not to bad for a place that was “one of the most popular places in Helsinki”. Well, let’s give it try.

On the way, we popped into that most curiously Nordic phenomena, the state alcohol shop, to get a bottle of fizz for the party. Those straight-talking Finns don’t waste words, and the place is branded “Alko”. It’s like the cleanest, most orderly and well-stocked off-licence you can imagine. They apparently ID you if they suspect you’re under-age, and do this quite a lot. Sadly, I did not get checked.

We walked through town, and headed to this great-sounding restaurant-in-a-former church. Well, it was indeed “one of the most popular places in Helsinki” as it was Temppeliaukion Kirkko, a very-much-still-in-use church hewn from the rock. People go there because it is an impressive sight, and the only service on offer is of a religious variety. Feeling very sheepish, we stepped back and went to see our friends. Lesson? Check if your dinner destination is on the “Helsinki Top 10 Attractions” list, and really, get a tip for dinner and book ahead!

Saturday was the big day, so after another delicious breakfast, we wandered around in town. The gang headed to check out one of  Helsinki’s gems, the beautiful white cathedral on top of a hill. It’s one of the symbols of the city, and appears to float gracefully on the skyline. The simple white decoration is continued inside the cathedral, and it really did feel like an oasis of calm. As you can see, it also looks stunning against a brilliant blue sky.

With a little time to kill before getting dressed for the wedding, I remembered the Ateljee Bar on the rooftop of the Torni hotel. This 13-storey building was, until the mid-1980s, the tallest building in Helsinki. It’s been overtaken since, but that does mean that it does still offer spectacular vistas over the city. The last time I visited, we went up at night, and apparently you can see all the way across the Gulf of Finland to the lights of Tallinn.

While wandering the streets, you will see that the signs are bilingual – in Finnish and in Swedish. But this one really caught my eye – a testament to the location of Helsinki and its history between Sweden and Russia. And if you’re curious, my best translation is that this all means “South Red Valley Street”.


Sights seen and  friendships renewed, we went back to the hotel, got dressed up, and headed to the wedding. The location was stunning – out to the west of the city, in the forest bounded by the Porkkalanselkä sea lake. The sky was cloudless, the sun was shining and the ceremony was perfect. Very simple and incredibly touching. We celebrated with the newlyweds until late in the evening, watching the sun go down and then as darkness fell, we ate, drank, danced and sat by the lakeside chatting and peering into the mysterious woodland night.

Now, a little confession. Those that were staying in Helsinki got a late bus back to town, and someone spotted a karaoke bar. We couldn’t resist. It was when someone said “How often do you get the chance to sing karaoke in Helsinki?” – we just had to. We piled in, bought outrageously expensive Finnish beers, and did a few rounds of Queen and Bon Jovi. And of course, all fired up from the wedding, we sang a raucous version of Always...

…but of course, this meant the next day involved mostly getting up late and mooching around town all day drifting between coffee here and a snack there. One undoubted highlight is the Fazer café, which is a fantastic 1930s-inspired venue that serves up a proper selection of fancy cakes. Think olde-worlde Viennese coffee house. You can also sample the range of Fazer chocolates – they are basically the much-loved confectionery brand that Finns hold very dear to their heart.

Aside from eating, we…well, actually we didn’t do much other than eat. The sense of achievement came from having the bright idea during the day to make a dinner reservation (we learned from Friday night!), so we tucked in to some good Italian food in Toscanini, and then, eh…went our for …more karaoke. That lasted from 9pm until 2am. Finns love their karaoke, so we just chalked it all up to a rich exchange of cultures. We did actually leave the bar around midnight, but unable to find somewhere that was as much fun, we went back. The look on the face of the hostess was priceless, as she clearly thought she was rid of these funny foreigners that kept on requesting songs in English rather than appreciating the Finnish classics.

To make up for all that (admittedly out-of-tune) singing, Monday necessitated a bit of culture, so it was off to the Design Museum. There was an interesting retrospective on some of the designers behind Iittala, and how its range has developed from the 1950s up to the modern day. I loved seeing how some of the ceramics and glassware that had been on sale in their flagship store earlier in the weekend had actually come to be.

And finally, regular readers will also know that I have a soft spot for cinnamon buns, and have been on a bit of an oddesy to find them (most successfully at the Finnish-inspired Nordic Bakery in our own Golden Square in London). Well, as a last goodbye from Helsinki, before departing for the airport, I was able to enjoy a proper piece of cinnamon-infused loveliness with a cup of coffee. Sheer bliss.

Hotel Klaus K, Bulevardi 2, 00120 Helsinki. Tel: +358 20 770 4700

Toscanini, Bulevardi 2/4, 00120 Helsinki. Tel: +358 20 770 4713

Fazer Cafe, Kluuvikatu 3, 00100 Helsinki

Ateljee Bar, Hotel Torni, Yrjönkatu 26, 00100 Helsinki

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A weekend in Dublin…

I’ve lived many, many years on these islands, but just sort of…never got round…to visiting Ireland. Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Bulgaria, Latvia, Malta? All done. From the Alps to the Black Sea, all done. But our nearest neighbour? Well, it’s sort of there and you just sort of expect to go at some point.

Now to say that we are as strangers is not quite true – I went to a wedding near Arklow a couple of years ago, but it was a case of fly in, train down the coast, wedding, party, sleep, recover, train, 2 hours in Dublin and fly back. So all in all, not really a chance to see much of Ireland (beyond the rather stunning coastline that the train route followed), or more specifically, Dublin.

And so it was, a couple of days in Ireland were booked. At last.

I’ve got to say, the trip over was quite hairy – budget airline (which was as you might expect) but the landing…woah! Windy in the extreme and the landing was less than delicate. The sort of landing that makes everyone go very quiet and clutch the seat arms with white knuckles. The sort of landing that actually prompts massive cheers when you land. You get the idea…

Now, my previous experience of Dublin was limited to a few moments on the main drag, O’Connell Street, in the pouring rain. This time, the Emerald Isle was to redeem itself, with pretty much non-stop sunshine. Arriving on a Friday evening, coming along the banks of the River Liffey, the city looked incredibly pretty.

I ended up arriving quite late, and so with limited knowledge of the town, headed to a veggie place called Cornucopia for dinner.

This place is sort of a restaurant and sort of like a cafeteria. Confused? Well, you go in, the very friendly staff sit you down and ply you with wine, but you go to a counter to choose the food. Not sure I got why you would have table staff and the counter thing, but you do then get to see what you could be eating. And that evening, it was a tasty selection of vegetable bakes, curry, salads and stuff veg. Quite homely, but very delicious. And to top it off, they had a harp playing. Now I know that it is such a stereotype, but I found it utterly charming. Nice place, great staff, and worth popping into for a hearty dinner. It’s not fine dining and doesn’t pretend to be, but I loved it all the same. Actually, this place did show me one little characteristic of the Irish that I found very nice. Back home, you ask what’s on the menu: “We’ve got…”. In Ireland, the waitress always seems to say “I’ve got…“. Very personal!

Dinner enjoyed, it was off into town to check our a few of the Irish bars, or “bars” as I would imagine they call them there. Guinness, beer and lots of shouting people. Got the feeling that people were enjoying themselves.

Of course…all that Guinness does not make for a great morning after, both in terms of the amount drunk or the cost of drinking it (6 euro per pint? Really?). In my delicate state, I headed down to check out the hotel breakfast. And it was not great. And they were looking for 10 euro for the privilege. Sorry, and even recognising that they’d laid on some soda bread, it was not appealing. So off into town in search of something better.

I had read that there was a food market along Cows Lane which was about 30 seconds away, so that seemed like a sensible place to start. Lots of stalls selling local fresh produce, jams, cakes and bread.

And Lo! Along the street was the teasingly-named Queen of Tarts.

The weather was sufficiently fine to entertain sitting outside, and I ordered a massive stack of pancakes. Just what the doctor ordered, and something that the hotel could have learned from! As you can see, both the pancakes and the breakfast omelette ticked many a box with those that had partaken of the Irish nightlife the previous evening.

So if in Dublin and not enamoured of what your hotel of guest-house is offering in the morning, this place is well worth checking out. It also has a fantastic selection of cakes, muffins, slices and just about any other sweet treat that you can imagine. Just the sort of stuff to give you lots of energy with what was about to come.

Yes, as a visitor, it seems almost obligatory to enjoy the sunshine and spend many, many hours walking around town. We left the Queen of Tarts and headed into town to see some of the sites – the famous Ha’penny Bridge (where locals were charges half a penny for the privileged of walking across the River Liffey, rather than waiting for a ferry), the impressive Trinity College, the green space of St Stephen’s Green, the grand Georgian area around the Dáil (Parliament) and the fashionable southside of the city.

Something I was curious about was whether I would pick up the odd word of Irish. I was prepared for this not being spoken day-to-day in most of Dublin, particularly around the tourist highlights. But the answer is a great, big, firm no.

While you come back from Spain merrily adding a bit of the lingo into everyday conversions, albeit with off looks from your friends and colleagues, Irish and I remain unfamiliar with each other. Mostly given that it looks unpronounceable to the uninitiated. So the odd “that’s grand” is about as far as it is going to go.

Still, I think the green street signs with the gaelic script look rather fetching.

Saturday evening was a bit of a repeat of Friday, albeit with some local friends and on a grander scale, so inevitably, Sunday too got off to a slow start. However, there were still a few more things to see, so it was a case of press on regardless.

Dublin does have some pretty impressive cathedrals, and I recommend checking out St Patrick’s and/or Christchurch. In my case, it was both. St Patrick’s in particular was fascinating, as the history of the country is reflected in a lot of the decorations and memorials in the building.

After the high culture of cathedral, it was time to pay homage to one of Dublin’s most famous daughters, the alluring Molly Malone. She was made famous by the song Cockles and Mussels (also known as In Dublin’s Fair City). It’s an Irish classic that you’ve probably heard, and the city’s unofficial anthem. And I gather that the locals sometimes refer to her as, eh, the “tart with the cart”. Got to admire that Irish humour and directness, eh?

Molly visited and respects paid, time for a coffee. I had been given a tip-off from friends that there was a good café on the top floor of Avoca, which I can best describe as a department store for gifts and household furnishings (so good to buy the presents to take back home).

The bad news: it’s a about 5 floors up. But the good news: it’s a cute place and serves some great food. Still feeling delicate, it was time for coffee and a large plate of garlic mushrooms on cheesy bread with rosemary roasted tomatoes. And you know what? In my state, it was delicious and hit the spot perfectly. And it seems to be just a little off the tourist route, as it was crammed with locals.

So Dublin – was it worth the wait? The people are great, and there are some impressive things to see and good places to eat. It also has a thriving independent coffee house scene, which is perfect for the traveller in need of a caffeine fix. The bad news is that it is on the pricey side  (and if someone who lives in London says that, you know it is true), but if that is your only criteria for travel, then you are cutting yourself off from a lot that the World has to offer. And of course…you’d miss out of sitting in a Dublin bar, singing three rounds of the Molly Malone song with the locals. Now that is worth it!

Queen of Tarts, Cows Lane, Dame Street, Dublin 2. Tel:+353 1 633 4681

Cornucopia, 19/20 Wicklow Street, Dublin 2. Tel: +353 1 677 7583

Avoca, 11-13 Suffolk Street, Dublin 2. Tel: +353-1-672 6019

LondonEats locations map here.

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