April 24, 2009
Great food, highly skilled chefs, a ticking clock and judgement day. This is the haute cuisine of TV dinners.
I’m not usually a fan of TV cookery programmes, to me they seem to be polarised into either the ridiculously macho (Gordon Ramsay, Hell’s Kitchen and the two obstreperous numpties who present Master Chef) or the simperingly yummy-mummsy (Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson). Although while on this soap-box I must say that I think Heston Blumenthal is the estimable exception to the usual TV fodder. His food may be impossible to replicate, but his shows are informative (particularly his recent historical series), always highly entertaining and his knowledge and passion for his subject are indisputable. Plus his originality put him in the top tier of Great British eccentrics and that is rarefied ground.
So, Blumenthal aside, given my usual indifference to telly cooking I’ve surprised myself by becoming addicted, for the second year running, to the BBC series The Great British Menu. The basic premise of the program is professional chefs (many of them Michelin starred) compete to cook a dish at a four-course banquet. Last year’s event was a showcase of modern British cuisine served to a group of the world’s greatest chefs, this year the theme is ‘a taste of home’ and the guests will be service men and women returning from Afghanistan. This may be a BBC/armed forces PR exercise (don’t mention Iraq) however the presentation is admirably un-jingoistic and a-political whilst still paying respect to the risk and hard work that individuals at the front-line have taken.
One of the reasons I like the Great British Menu is the food, not the chef’s egos, is centre stage and while the cooking may be aspirational it is very inspiring. This week Northern Ireland competitor, Danny Miller, served soda farls topped with sautéd chicken livers as a side order to a chicken broth. It looked so delicious and doable that I skipped off to the kitchen and whipped out a skillet. Opposite him three-star Michelin chef Claire Smyth’s comments on presentation and her beautifully refined Irish stew have made me re-think some of my more ‘homely’ concoctions.
There are, however, other dishes which have left me open-mouthed with amazement at the skill involved in their execution: one being Alan Murchison’s caramel globe filled with raspberries and cream and the other being Daniel Clifford’s smoking smoked egg and duck breast starter. I wish I could cook as well as that.
What is also interesting is how the program works as a litmus paper for the fads and fashions of food. Last year’s ubiquitous foams and powders have been replaced in 2009 by smears of sauces. And the cooking method du jour seems to be vacuum packing meat or fish and poaching it in a water bath. I can see that it is a very delicate way of maximising flavours although I wasn’t surprised that the method provoked sneering ‘boil-in-the-bag’ comments from overseeing chef, Richard Corrigan. Own smoking is also popular this year and while I think this would add an interesting flavour component, I imagine it is damn hard to do judiciously.
Thankfully last year’s endless ‘surf and turf’ obsession seems to be waning; surely good fish should be delicious enough by itself without the addition of stewed beef or offal. And on the subject of offal while I agree that the whole animal should be used, and it is hideously wasteful not to use all parts of the beast, there is no need to underline this point by putting the whole carcass on a single plate.
So while everyone on Great British Menu knows they are here for the food, chefs of this calibre inevitable have big characters and true personalities will always out at this level of pressure. One of the funniest unscripted moments was when, after five days of backbiting in the kitchen during the Central England heat, Daniel Clifford proclaimed ‘we have had a friendly week.’ Fellow competitor Glynn Purnell just turned and looked at him.
My favourite characters of the programme so far are: Scottish overseeing chef Jeremy Lee who is erudite, camp and vaguely posh: characteristics rarely seen in a professional kitchen; Richard Corrigan who while overseeing the Northern Irish heat, mugs away to the unseen TV audience, expressing his delight or disagreement and Claire Smyth who is the epitome of calm, preparation and ability.
As for the judges, I suspect that Prue Leith would do a perfectly good job by herself and doesn’t need her two side-kicks Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton. However Peyton’s sartorial misjudgement alone is worth turning the telly on for and Matthew Fort undeniably knows his scoff although I am sure he is more of an eater than a cook.
So there are another few weeks of Great British Menu to go which means: some great and some ridiculous dishes; more overworked food getting shot down for being pretentious; more seemingly banal dishes e.g. a cheese and pickle sandwich, being transformed into something magical; more over-wrought chefs starting to sweat as they try to pull off seemingly impossible culinary feats and all summed up by ex-royal reporter Jennie Bond’s tweed skirt and no knickers commentary. It is great cooking, great TV and I’ll be watching.
April 17, 2009
The first English cookery book is about the top table of Medieval cookery. Surprisingly with a little adaptation its recipes can easily be re-created. Many are delicious.
The Forme of Cury is a recipe collection created by the ‘chief master cooks of King Richard II’. I have been hunting around for a copy of this for a while, so I was delighted to find a copy on-line:
English King Richard II (1367 – 1400) deserves some sympathy as he was just a ten-year-old boy when he was thrust on to the throne. But while he may have been naïve and ill equipped to deal with the demands of leadership he never the less abused his power, robbed his subjects and ordered the deaths of many of his advisors and high ranking officials as well as imposing draconian taxes and laws on his people. He was dethroned in 1399 then imprisoned before being murdered by conspirators in 1400.
During his reign the Monarch squandered vast sums of money on food and feasting. He was the first Royal who opted to eat alone instead of being the centre piece of a courtly dining spectacle, all observed by a rabble of peasants who came nightly to view their King at table. Richard II preferred to eat his gourmet delights away from prying eyes. He ate the best, the most exotic and finely executed food available. His Chief Master Cook had a tough job to fill and he recorded his recipes and achievements in the manuscript The Forme of Cury.
This is a roll call of the recipes prepared for this self-absorbed ego-maniac King. It is also a unique insight into the best food available in the Middle Ages. It also shows that while the peasant class may have eked out an existence on gruel, at the Royal Top Table, food was imaginative and refined.
What strikes me about The Forme of Cury is that the recipes are actually fairly approachable. The original manuscript was written in Middle English and it is worth looking at this text before reading the modernized version in order to get a sense of the manuscript, a real feeling that this is an authentic historical document.
As for the food itself, some of the ingredients are unavailable, (I simply can’t remember the last time I saw lamprey in the supermarket) others you might not want to cook (I really don’t think cooking swan is worth the jail time) but there are other recipes that can be executed fairly easily and I would encourage anyone who enjoys cooking and/or history to take a look at the manuscript and have a go. (Do post a comment and let me know how you got on!)
Egurdouce Of Fysshe or sweet and sour fish is my favourite so far. This dish is similar to Spanish escabeche or Japanese nanbanzuke: fried fish marinated in a sweet and sour dressing. It is wonderful to see a historical English fish dish that is so creative and delicious. (Note to self: idea for a future blog, how the 16th century Puritan Reformation did English fish cookery up like a kipper.)
So now for a taste of the Medieval:
Egurdouce Of Fysshe.
Take Loches other Tenches other Solys smyte hem on pecys. fry hem in oyle. take half wyne half vynegur and sugur & make a siryp. do therto oynouns icorue raisouns coraunce. and grete raysouns. do therto hole spices. gode powdours and salt. messe the fyssh & lay the sewe aboue and serue forth.
Sweet and Sour Fish (my translation)
Take loaches, other trenches, other soles and cut them into pieces. Fry them in oil. Take half wine, half vinegar and sugar and make a syrup. Core onions, raisins, currants and sultanas. Add to that whole spice, good powders and fish. Plate the fish, and lay the stew about it, then serve it forth.
Sweet and Sour Fish (my 21st Century Version)
500g filleted mixed fish (pollock, salmon, mackerel – good to have a mix of textures)
50g flour to coat
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
100ml white wine
100g mixed dried fruit
1 tablespoon of honey
1 large onion
Pinch each of: ginger, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cloves, nutmeg etc (There’s scope to play around here)
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
Finally dice the onion and sweat in the oil for a good 10 minutes until soft and tender. Add the honey, spices, mixed fruit, wine and vinegar and bring to the boil.
Coat the fish in flour and gently fry.
Place fish in serving dish and pour the sweet and sour marinade over.
Leave to chill then serve it forth.
April 3, 2009
At the Plaimont St Mont en Fête festival I discovered some wonderful and quirky wines and that the true spirit of carnival lives on.
When wine co-operative Producteurs Plaimont invited me to attend the festival Plaimont St Mont en Fête in Gascony, South West of France, it would have been foolish of me not to say yes. Not only did I need a break from grimy London but this event would be a great opportunity to visit a part of France that I hadn’t been to before. What’s more, as well as being a wine and food lover, I also have an interest in the carnivalesque. (To see some of my articles on this visit my website) So a weekend of wine, food and carnival: how could I refuse?
But having accepted my invitation and packed my bags I started to worry. One of the key phenomena of traditional carnival is that it is a special occasion, a time where normal social hierarchies don’t apply: the king becomes the fool and the fool becomes king etc. As the St Mont festival is only twenty years old and does not date back to the great carnival era, i.e. the Middle Ages, I worried that the essential ‘liminality’, the ‘other worldliness’ vital to the true carnival spirit, might not exist. After all the carnivalesque is not something that can be created, it happens naturally or not at all.
I worried further when I heard that Producteurs Plaimont own 98% of the Saint Mont appellation and that this festival is also a platform for showing their wines. I was prepared to be disappointed and to drag my way through a blatant wine promotion; the sort of event where promo staff, chosen for their nubile looks over their expertise, pour plastic thimbles of wine for an increasingly drunken crowd.
So you can imagine how delighted I was when standing amongst the throng in Saint Mont on Saturday morning I witnessed a Harley Davidson gang riding into the village and start chatting up a group of local, middle aged ladies, dressed as nuns, who responded with appropriately girlish-glee. Hurrah I thought, this is the true spirit of carnival, the inappropriate flirtation, the triumph of the human. Plaimont Saint Mont en Fête might not be historic but it is a true carnival. I could relax.
The festival centred around a street theatre performance which re-enacted the tale of how the Monastery in Saint Mont was established in the 11the century. To be honest it’s the sort of theatre that only really works if you know somebody in the cast, but I still appreciated the joie de vivre and the moments of incongruity that a group of people dressed as monks and peasants wandering about in the twenty-first century affords. Plus the costumes set the carnival tone and there was a general feeling of conviviality throughout the village.
So after a hearty round of applause it was off to the wine tastings. French wineries are often criticised for operating a closed-door policy. I have sympathy for both sides in the debate. It’s a tall order to expect a hard working, self-employed, vigneron to break off a day’s work in order to show a couple of tourists, who may or may not buy, round their set up. But equally if you have travelled several 100/1000 miles in order to taste Madiran/St Mont in the place where it was grown, it is easy to feel short-changed by a less than welcoming wine grower.
The Plaimont St Mont en Fête is a great answer to the problem. There are tastings going on at the various wineries owned by the co-operative plus there are a number of marquees also offering wines. These tastings are manned by the wine growers and Producteur Plaimont staff, so if you ask a question, you will get a proper response. And while the atmosphere here is relaxed and lively there’s a serious side. Most people are leaving with at least one case of wine in the boot of their car. So this means that a) people are watching their alcohol in take and b) they are making some careful decisions about they actually spend their money on.
Our party ate lunch in another marquee, joining other revellers on long trestle tables and chatting with our neighbours in true carnival spirit. This being the South West we were served duck in various guises: duck soup, duck gizzard salad, duck maigret and best of all a very tasty duck foie gras, cooked in aluminium foil on the grill. (To see my South West recipes visit the Duck Soup recipe page above right).
We had another duck-fest in the evening at Le Vieux Logis restaurant in Aignan before trouping off to a couple of parties. It was here that my sense of carnival failed me. I’ve never been a fan of French rock music and fourth-rate, full-decimal cover versions of Pink Floyd and REM tested my largesse d’esprit beyond its limits, so I headed back to the hotel leaving my more robust colleagues behind. Overall though, a good time had been had by all.
Here are some of my favourite Producteurs Plaimont wine discoveries:
Saint Mont le Faîte 2006
This wine is a true showcase for South West white grapes. Made from 50% Gros Manseng, 20% Petit Courbu, 15% Arrufiac and 15% Petit Manseng. The nose smells of bruised apples and mint. The palate is creamy with a touch of mint, apricots and honey with terrific length. This is a high-brow white wine.
Saint Mont Rosé de Campagne 2008
This is a serious pink. Made from the South West grape variety Tannat plus Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc it has a herbaceous/tea aroma and bone dry strawberry palate making it a great food as well as quaffing wine.
Saint Mont, Rive Haute 2005
A savoury, rubber-smelling nose, uplifted by some pretty floral notes. This mix of Tannat, Pinnec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes make this a delicious, muscular and meaty wine. It has the bonus of an attractive lick of acidity and very long length. At four years old there’ll be plenty of life in this wine for years to come.
Saint Mont, Château de Sabazan 2006
A beautiful rich wine with lots of leathery, herbaceous notes on the nose and palate. Again this has that typical South West acidity that turns a blockbuster into an attractive and fresh wine.
Saint Mont, Le Monastre du Saint Mont 2006
A more mainstream version of Saint Mont, this wine is softer with a chocolatey note and cherry fruit. But it has a quirky touch of bees wax and violets on the nose and the typical South West freshness making it a true reflection of the region.
Saint Mont, Le Monastre du Saint Mont 2005
A year older and from a hotter vintage than the above, this wine is showing more coffee-chocolate liqueur flavours. These follow through on to the palate but the famed 2005 heat didn’t burn off all the Tannat acidity and the wine remains fresh and appealing.
We enjoyed these two sweet wines with a delicious selection of foie gras. Choosing the favourite was a tough call but at a pinch I think the 2002 made the better match.
Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, Saint Albert, 2007
A lovely, light and pretty sweet wine with a complex palate with almond, sultana, apricot and quince flavours. Very fresh.
Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, La Saint Sylvestre, 2002
Harvested on the 31st December from shrivelled grapes, this is a fabulous, mature, sweet wine. With caramel, linseed oil and ripe peach flavours on the palate. A real treat.
To find out more about Producteurs Plaimont visit: