Wednesday, 30 September 2009

When in Skye...

I recently experienced a rain-drenched week on the Isle of Skye, North-West Scotland. When the isle wasn't being lashed with horizontal rain and gales, the sun occasionally peeped out and lit up the landscape, suffusing the harsh rocky crags of the hills and blue lochs in a golden shimmering light. We spent a fair portion of our time braving the outdoors and getting soaked to the bone; the rest of the time, we devoted ourselves wholly to the task of staying warm, and eating and drinking as much as possible, which is what holidays are all about.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to get a delicious meal on Skye, my experiences of Scottish grub being somewhat limited to deep-fried-everything-with-chips on frequent trips to Glasgow. (And it also helped that we were staying in a self-catering youth hostel, so that we didn't have to eat out all the time).

Here's a brief summary of what no visitor to Skye should ignore:

- A fascinating tour and free tipples at The Talisker Whisky Distillery, Carbost. The air outside the building smelt curiously of roast gammon, TCP and bread, and the polished copper distilling vats with their ceiling-high pipes made me think of Willy Wonka's factory!

- Fresh oysters from Isle of Skye Oysters, Carbost. Paul the oyster man plucked fresh specimens out of a purification tank and cracked them open for us to try there and then - I have never eaten such delicious and fresh oysters in all my life. They were creamy, salty and briney - like a wave of sea water exploding in your mouth (in a good way). We added lemon juice and a few dabs of smoky chipotle chilli sauce, which took the experience 'up to 11'!

- An incredible gourmet lunch at The Three Chimneys, Colbost - a delightful restaurant in an old white stone cottage where they make delicious and complex dishes from local produce and present it with real wow factor. I have never eaten fish so good in a very long time. Despite being a real foodie magnet boasting uber-foodie credentials, the restaurant isn't in any way stuck up and the staff are friendly and down-to-earth. I recommend spending a long, lazy afternoon here when it's (invariably) raining.

Home-cured Talisker Hebridean salmon with Brunigill Farm quail eggs, sweet and sour cucumber:

Selection of Scottish cheeses with Three Chimneys oatcakes and chutney:

Roast saddle of Highland venison with pearl barley, Ayrshire bacon, Husabost greens and carrots, beetroot and blaeberry game gravy:

- On a more modest note, I enjoyed a very delicious tuna and cheddar toasted sarnie at The Isle of Skye Bakery, Dunvegan, where you can sit and stroke Zeus the resident cat and drink soul-restoring tea. Cheap and cosy, with cheery ladies running the joint. Oh - and the best chips I have ever eaten. Fact!

So even though the rain did its best to dampen our spirits, nothing got in the way of our voracious appetites. And we were mightily pleased by everything we ate.

Well, almost. This 'thing' pictured below is appalling excuse for a seafood chowder which I had the misfortune to order at The Old Inn, Carbost. Would you just look at this abject portion of misery (served as a miserly portion, too):

This rank broth was watery and grey with no hint of creaminess (which is what chowder is all about), with overcooked miscellaneous fish scraps looming out of it. I almost retched when I tasted a piece of fish and discovered slimy fish skin hanging from it. And what are the orange things floating? Carrot peelings! This might as well have been a fish stock that the chef threw all his scraps in - but the only thing that identified it as a 'soup' was a grey lump of potato lurking in the depths, and the sad slices of bread that accompanied the bowl. All in all, this was an insult to fish chowders the world over, for which I paid an eye-watering £6.50. Old Inn, damn your eyes!

Thank God my pal O boosted our morale by cooking a wonderful spread of Pakistani curries back at the youth hostel in the evening - och aye brilliant!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Proper Motorway Nosh: The Real Food Cafe

Last time I wrote, I was having a proper old moan about the lack of decent food options when on the road, venting my fury towards motorway service stations serving crap tucker, and lacklustre port-side sandwich merchants. But hark, I now have reason to rejoice! Quite by accident, on our way to the Lake District from Scotland, we chanced upon The Real Food Cafe - a motorway eatery with a difference, located on the A85 which crosses the breathtakingly beautiful Loch Lomond and Trossach National Park. It serves homemade, locally sourced food - and nothing comes out of a packet!

Ironically, this used to be a Little Chef. But now, instead of boil-in-the-bag and fried food swimming in grease, you can now feast upon freshly homebaked breads and cakes, roasted free range chicken, sustainable fish 'n chips, homemade Highland beef burgers, hearty vegetable soups and all manner of salads. You eat with real cutlery instead of everything being disposable, and my soup came in a porcelain bowl. And lo - they have a fresh cakes counter (always a hotline to my heart) groaning with flapjacks, millionaire's shortbread, Victoria Sponge - and even meringues! (Can you imagine eating a meringue in a service station? Neither can I. The mere notion feels as though the world is turning in on itself. But at The Good Food Cafe you can do this without fear!).

As we sat and ate our delicious meal (veg soup with crusty bread; fish 'n chips in light, crispy batter; buttery shortbread) a very smiley lady popped a fresh tray of warm scones onto the table right next to us. She was even humming a tune. Birds pecked at feeders right outside the window. What a jolly place! It is quite bizarre going to the loos and seeing that they're probably the same ones from the building's Little Chef days: it's like The Little Chef became a grown up.

Light-as-air batter on the fish (and very crispy chips):

The illustrious cake counter:

The Real Food Cafe's story is thus: Sarah Heward and Steve Wolsey took on the struggling Little Chef and transformed it into a haven of good food in 2005. Sadly Steve passed away in 2006, but Sarah continues to run the cafe, determined to serve the best possible grub to weary drivers and hikers. As much of their produce as possible is sourced from the local area - for example, sausages from the nearby glen and beef from the Isle of Mull. They make all their own bread - and for that alone, I salute them. Here's hoping we see some more people follow suit and maybe slowly our on-the-road eating options can improve...

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Crimes against food

I am quite often inspired to have a foodie rant. So here goes my first proper 'harrumph' on the blog.

The cake above is Exhibit A - a selection of slices of banana and chocolate cake purchased from Del Aziz in Bermondsey Square, London. Nothing wrong with the cakes as such, but the lady who cut the slices in front of me first of all cut a 1cm slice from the cake which she put to one side before cutting a bigger wedge to sell to me. "What do you do with the small bit?" I asked. "Oh, we throw it away," she replied nonchalantly. Whaaaat? That means that at least a whole quarter of each cake they make goes directly in the bin - a nonsensical waste of perfectly edible food. They must be insane. What is meant to be a gesture of largesse totally fails to impress. How can you throw cakes away when there are people going hungry? Time will tell whether their profits go into the bin as well...

And Exhibit B? Behold the sorry sandwich below:

This vile example of a tuna mayonnaise 'baguette' was purchased a few days ago from 'Bake & Bite' situated in the car park of the Portsmouth Isle of Wight ferry dock. Ok, I should have known that I wasn't exactly in the right place for a gourmet snack, but this sandwich was what I felt would be the 'safest' option from a very unappetising array of leaden, greasy snacks on display at the counter. However, as soon as I bit into it, it was like receiving a wet sludgy slap to the face. The bread was so damp it felt as though it had been dunked into a bucket of water. The salad inside was limp and forlorn; the tuna had been whipped into a greyish gloop with acidic mayonnaise (no doubt piped out of an industrial vat somewhere). The whole thing was totally disgusting and - as much as I HATE wasting food - I had to lob it into the bin. Why is it so impossible to get a simple nutritious snack outside of big towns and cities in the UK? Apparently in countries like Italy you can eat wonderful homecooked food at motorway service station cafes for next to tuppence. In France I've had many a delicious meal in supermarket cafes. It's not that difficult to make tasty, simple food. But we've clearly got a long way to go in this country if even the simplest of sandwiches proves too challenging. Bah!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Caphe House

I just wanted to give a bit of a shout-out to a splendid new Vietnamese cafe called Caphe House that has recently opened up on Bermondsey Street, tucked a stone's throw away from London Bridge station. It's a small, neat place with modern art pictures on the wall that for some reason makes you feel healthier and virtuous the minute you walk in - must be the wonderful smells emanating from the counter. They offer the perfect alternative to the usual boring British office lunch - if you're tired of soggy sandwiches, you can instead pick yourself up a zingy noodle salad with roasted meats, prawns or tofu, fresh summer rolls and banh mi (Vietnamese-style pate baguettes sandwiches stuffed with herbs and crudites). Everything is seasoned with wonderful chilli sauce and fish sauce marinades, dotted with fresh coriander and mint and packed with crunchy fresh strips of vegetables. My lunch pictured above was perfect for a sweltering day: fresh rice noodles dressed with fish sauce, lime juice and fiery chilli sauce, topped with lemongrass-infused crispy tofu and packed out with crunchy strips of pepper, cucumber and carrot.

Is there a catch to this place? Well, aside from the massive baguette sandwiches, the dishes aren't cheap. My noodle and tofu salad was a relatively modest portion and cost £5 - I wolfed it down in five minutes. If you add a side order of fresh summer rolls and a coffee, you've let go of a tenner. And service can be excrutiatingly slow - BUT, the food is delicious and the staff more than make up for these shortcomings by being super friendly and remembering you by name if you pop in regularly. I wish them lots of luck and can thoroughly recommend this place if you want something light, healthy and bursting with fresh flavours instead of a flabby sandwich or mayo-drenched salad box. Oh - alongside regular lattes, they do the special Vietnamese coffees (caphe den and caphe sua) which I developed a serious addiction to when I travelled around Vietnam a few years ago. There's just something so delicious about that heady rush of condensed milk and strong black coffee...

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Trout pout

I'm a fairly urban girl with an impractical wardrobe. So I wasn't quite sure how I'd fare out in the wild at my first ever fly fishing lesson. Seeing as I don't possess many sensible outdoor clothes, my first task was dig something out of the wardrobe in muted colours so as not to frighten the fish. Not easily done, but that was the least of my worries...

I'd bought a fly fishing lesson as a birthday present for my husband and thought it'd be fun to tag along too. We're both interested in where our food comes from, and what better thing to be doing than to hunt and catch your own tucker? We've watched so many episodes of River Cottage and looked on wistfully as Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall potters around the Dorset countryside in pastoral paradise with his dog. So we headed to a trout fishery in Hampshire, with its beautiful network of small lakes fringed with verdant greenery and overhanging trees, and met up with our tutor, stalwart trout fishing expert, J.

J meticulously demonstrated the whole process, from assembling the tackle, threading the flies and the art of casting off. In a word: it's so fiddly! J seemed to think that 'ladies' might have the more delicate touch when it came to flinging the line into the water, but I disappointed him with my bloke-ish clumsy manoeuvres. I spent more time with the fly hook stuck in my hand or unravelling the line from overhanging trees than I did with the line actually in the water. J was very patient, but essentially I was not making much headway and had to spend ages standing on the bank casting my line over and over again. By midday, I was fading fast and was grateful when the three of us drove to the nearby local pub for lunch for a gutbusting meal of ham, egg and chips.

At which point, our tutor became rather morose. Not exactly gifted in the art of conversational topics outside of fly fishing (think along the lines of Steve Coogan's depressive roadie Tommy in 'Saxondale') he launched into a detailed rant about other sub-standard fly fishing instructors in the South of England and how he was intent on kicking up a stir with the regulatory authorities about 'low standards of teaching'. Hmm. I nodded and ummmed and ahhed, and J continued apace, sensing this as encouragement. He motioned to a man (another instructor) sitting having lunch on the other side of the room and said in a loud voice: "He, at least, is one of the good guys."

Righto. I soldiered on with my lunch and tried to change the subject. But no - by now, J was intent on extending his tirade to include the entire community of fly fishing teachers in the British Isles, and all the reasons why nobody in the country was as skilled as he was. Were we aware that no other fishing instructor in the UK could entertain the crowds at trade shows by hitting flour-filled balloons with a fishing line? Hmmm. I could feel my energy ebbing away, and was powerless to steer the conversation back to a less brain-deadening subject. One thing that struck me was that no matter what line of work you do, whether you're stuck behind a PC in an office, working in a shop or, indeed, teaching people how to catch fish, the politics are all the same.

Thankfully we didn't stay too long at the pub. Once back at the fishing lakes, J calmed down and we continued our efforts catch a fish. Big, glistening trout glided lazily past our bait and paid no attention to our lines whatsoever. It was deeply frustrating. We'd been outside since 9:30 that morning, and by 6:30pm we hadn't had any luck. At which point, J (now thankfully mellow and contentedly puffing away on a pipe) sensed our disappointment and skillfully caught a pair of massive trout for us to take home. He let each of us reel them in to the bank and net them. He handed me 'The Priest': a heavy brass baton which which to kill the trout, and I dutifully cobbled it over the head above the eyes with several swift blows. I was expecting the trout to flip about all over the place when I hauled it onto the bank, but instead it lay still as though resigned to what came next. This city girl felt no qualms whatsoever about the act of killing, either! I wondered if J ever got carried away hitting fish (or indeed people) over the head...

And this is how our good trout friend ended up: baked in the oven in a foil parcel with its belly stuffed with lemon, garlic, celery.

We converted the cooked leftovers into potted trout, using Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's potted mackerel recipe from his 'Fish' book, where you mix up flaked fish with spices, chopped herbs and plenty of melted butter, 'potting' the mixture in a ramekin with a butter seal. Delicious on toast!

Friday, 4 September 2009

Beetroot and cardamom spice cake

There are loads of bonuses to getting a weekly organic box of fruit and veg delivered to the door. You get the best produce of the season and you're supporting small farmers and growers. Plus organic tastes better and is good for the environment. (Sorry to preach - I used to be copywriter for Abel & Cole!) But sometimes being 'good' is a right royal pain...I hate it when I get repeat seasonal deliveries of vegetables such as cauliflower and beetroot week after week. Of course I think seasonal eating is important but I just don't like certain veg as much as others. Cauliflower actually makes me furious.

Anyway, over the past few weeks our organic box delivery service kept giving us beetroot...waaay too much! Not such a bad thing, because there are delicious things you can make with it (such as Thai-style salads and spicy soups) but I still had nearly a kilo of the stuff to get through. Argh! I tried juicing it - it was too full-on and metallic to drink. So I thought I'd make a carrot-style fruit cake, substituting the carrots for grated beetroot. I added plenty of ground cardamom and vanilla and the result is an eye-poppingly purple and deliciously moist aromatic fruit cake. Smells lovely when it's baking - the whole house fills with the smell of spices. I'm so happy to have transformed a potentially yawn-some vegetable into a lovely tasty cake - nothing bad about that, is there?! (But please, A&C, ease up on the beetroot deliveries!)

You will need:

255g self raising wholemeal organic flour
330g grated raw beetroot
1 tsp baking powder
100g soft dark brown sugar
2 large organic eggs
100g sultanas/raisins/currants
150ml vegetable oil (use a neutral-tasting one such as rapeseed or sunflower)
2 level tsp ground cardamom (this is about 30 cardamom pods-worth)
1 tsp vanilla extract

(Got a tonne of beetroot to get through? Double or even triple the recipe and make several cakes that you can freeze.)

Preheat your oven to 180C. Line your tin with greaseproof baking paper - I used an 8-inch circular tin, but a loaf tin will do as well. Wash and peel your beetroot. Grate either by hand or use the grating attachment of a food processor to blitz it quickly. If you're using cardamom pods, gently crush about 30 of them to release the black seeds, discard the husks then pound the seeds to a fine powder in a pestle and mortar, or blitz them in a coffee grinder. If you can buy ready-ground cardamom, great! (but it will be less fragrant than crushing your own).

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and sugar. Add the dried fruit and grated beetroot and roughly mix in. Whisk the eggs, then add along with the oil and vanilla extract. Mix everything together with an electric whisk or wooden spoon. Everything will be looking pretty purple at this stage! Do not be afraid...

Spoon the mixture into your lined tin and bake for 60 - 70 minutes at 180C. To test for done-ness, pierce the cake with a skewer and if it comes out clean, the cake is ready. Let the cake cool down on a wire rack before tipping out of the tin.

Enjoy a slice with a cup of tea and a nice sit down! I suppose you could ice this cake, but I can't be bothered, it's nice on its own. Keeps well in an airtight tin for about a week, and also freezes well.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Lemon drizzle cakelets

Man, I love a good lemon cake. It has to be really lemony and with a touch of tanginess. Which is why these buttery lemon cakes fit the bill at any time of day - I even took some to the pub* on Friday night for my brother's birthday and people went mental for them. My mum used to make a French lemon cake called 'Quatre Quarts' where you weigh four eggs and then replicate their weight in flour, butter and sugar, and then add lemon zest. I've done that here, using a variation of the same recipe from Elle Fiches de Cuisine. It's a bit fiddly, but soooo worth it. And because I love cakes that are fist-sized and easily portable, I've baked them as 'cakelets' (it's a chubby baby cake) in a muffin tin and iced them with a lemon drizzle. And, as my brother said as he bit into one of these: "It's just so lemony arghhh fughhghg mmmmm...." Exactly.

Makes 12 muffin-shaped cakelets

You will need:

4 large organic eggs
Their weight in:
Organic butter (at room temperature)
Organic self raising flour
Golden fairtrade caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder (just for luck)
2 organic lemons (you'll be needing the zest, so I chose organic)
Pinch of salt

For the drizzle:
85g golden fairtrade caster sugar
Juice of 1.5 lemons (use the same ones that you take the zest from)

Preheat your oven to 150C. Then weigh your eggs and take a note of their weight. Then weigh out exactly the same amounts each of butter, sugar and flour. (For example, if your eggs weigh 250g, that's the weight that you'll need of each of the other ingredients).

Zest both lemons (finely grate off the rind) and set aside. Separate the eggs. Mix together the butter and sugar until soft and creamy, using an electric whisk or mixer.**

Add the egg yolks to the butter and sugar mixture one by one, waiting until each one is well incorporated before adding a new one. Sift in the flour and baking powder and mix everything well together, then mix in the lemon zest. In a clean bowl, whisk your egg whites together with a pinch of salt until they form loose, soft peaks. Not quite meringue stiffness. Then slowly and carefully add a third of the whipped whites to the cake mixture, gently folding in with a spatula. Then add another third, folding carefully in, then add the remainder. You want to not mix it around too much so that you don't knock all the air out.

Line a muffin tray with paper cases, and divide the cake mixture between them. (I find this easiest to do using an an ice cream scoop). Bake for about 40 minutes at 150C, until risen and just turning golden.

Before the cakes cool down, make the drizzle. Juice your lemons and mix in the sugar. Prick each cake with a skewer several times and spoon the drizzle onto their tops. The icing will soak into the cakes via the holes. When the cakes cool down, the icing goes lovely and translucent.

Enjoy - it's virtually impossible not to eat all of these cakes in one greedy sitting!

* The aforementioned pub is a real gem: The Montague Arms in Peckham, South London. You enter and your senses are immediately assailed by a colourful and bizarre array of stuffed animal heads mounted on plinths, ships wheels, rigging, lobster pots, penny farthing bicycles and thousands of ropes of fairy lights. At one end of the pub, two stuffed deer are sat in a Victorian carriage. Pot bellied men (mostly bearded) sup pints in dimly lit snugs and alcoves. You certainly don't ask to eat here (although allegedly there is a Sunday roast): you just get pints and listen to the ropey experimental punk band (or whoever happens to be playing that night) - if you're lucky the landlord (who looks like Captain Pugwash) might play a ditty on the in-house pipe organ... and there is a lovely elderly couple (probably in their 80s) serving at the bar. I kid you not!

** By the way: anyone got a Kenwood Mixer or Kitchen Aid food mixer (I can dream, can't I?) they don't want? I can give one a very loving home! My electric hand mixer is near-to-knackered... :o)