Eric Chavot swears on Saturday Kitchen – I get traffic!

The Capital Hotel’s Eric Chavot played a blinder on last weekend’s Saturday Kitchen. He was amusing, watchable and enigmatic, and the dish he created looked fab. Shame he let slip the f-word towards the end of the show and thus gave the Daily Mail free rein to vilify him …

My terribly clever WordPress dashboard registered a healthy dollop of traffic around Eric’s name after the programme, which spurred me to explore the chefs and cookery writers delivering the best footfall for me on this blog. So, pop pickers, here is my top ten of Lewis blog foodies. Dah Dah, da-da Dah, der der der, der der der, Dah Dah, da-da Dah … etc.

But what does this tell me about the relative pulling power of food stars, and the nature of chefdom, apart from the fact that I should clearly cook a dish from Marcella’s classical Italian repertoire every night if I want to grow my audience?

First, isn’t it interesting that two of the darlings of the food scene, Fergus and Alain, are way off the pace? Both are great chefs, and Alain occupies a place in the stratosphere of chef legends; but clearly their entrails and extravagance haven’t struck a chord with my visitors. Could it be that few domestic fridges harbour foie gras or trotters?

Second, how revealing that the top three should be booktastic, all, Madhur and Marcella having forged long and glittering literary careers from producing standard texts, Jun having only weeks ago brought out a popular new tome, Simple to Sensattional?

The message is that producing books of recipes that are attainable, tasty and rooted in a specific regional cuisine ensures a loyal following. In years to come, Jun (a really nice fellow) might have built up such a canon or work. Meanwhile, I would expect his name to be searched on less and less in the coming weeks, as more of his peers bring out new books. Ah, but “Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate”.

[The post was brought to you by Emily Dickinson and WordPress]

The Great British Menu comes to London

Stephen TerryBank holiday Monday; Susie was working. I went for a cycle, washed the dishes from last night, mopped the kitchen floor, found some great sounds on Spotify (Philip Glass, Arvo Part, Stereolab and the Dead Boys), and read my book (Dead Air by Iain Banks; promising so far …) in the garden. With rain in the air, I then came in and slumped in front of the telly, where Glynn Purnell, James Sommerin et al were trying to impress Oliver Peyton, Pru Leith and Matthew Fort in the new series of the Great British Menu. Queue happy memories of last week’s food highlight.

On Monday evening, the seven finalists of the 2008 series of  the BBC’s Great British Menu took over the Marriott Grosvenor Square to co-host a night of fine dining in aid of their industry charity, Hospitality Action. Here’s their spectacular menu:

  • Canapes (Jason Atherton)
  • Haggis, Neeps and Tatties (Tom Kitchin)
  • Smoked salmon with beetroot jelly, fresh horseradish, sour cream & caviar (Stephen Terry)
  • Poached halibut with cockle & smoked bacon chowder (Danny Millar)
  • Baked cannon of “Lonkshire” lamb, caramelised sweetbreads, Formby asparagus & samphire (Nigel Haworth)
  • Verbena blancmange, early summer fruit probio ‘Nutrasouptical’ & flower tissue (Chris Horridge)
  • Chocolate truffle (Glynn Purnell)

All of their dishes were interesting; inevitably, some appealed more than others. My favourites were Nigel’s sweet lamb, Chris’ blancmange (like eating shampoo, but in a good way), and – best of all – Stephen’s smoked salmon, which was rich, sour, earthy and tart all at once. A triumph that left me planning a trip over the Severn Bridge to eat at his restaurant, the Hardwick, and wanting to try cooking with beetroot.  

[This post was brought to you by the soundtrack to Kundun.)

Croeso i Cymru: learning to cook my mum’s Welsh cakes

Welsh cakes coolingOne of my fondest childhood food memories is of eating freshly baked Welsh cakes straight from the cooling rack, after my mum had made up a fresh batch. Her Welsh cakes are always delicious, but especially so, when still warm from the pan. Today, mum taught me how to make them myself – a major rite of passage, in Lewis family terms.

  • Ingredients:
  • 8oz self-raising flour
  • 2oz margarine
  • 2oz lard
  • 4oz castor sugar
  • 2oz currants
  • 1tsp mixed spice
  • 1/3tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • Splash milk.

First, slice the lard and margarine into small cubes and rub it into the flour. A light touch is required, to achieve a mixture with the consistency of fine breadcrumbs. Next, add the sugar, currants, mixed spice and salt and mix in well. Beat the egg, stir it into the mix with a fork, then use your hands to continue mixing, once the egg has soaked in. The mixture should reach the consistency of short patry. If it is too dry to form a ball, add just a dribble of milk.

On a surface dusted with flour, form the pastry into a flat circle, then roll out until it is a half-centimetre thick. Use a cake cutter to cut out individual rounds. Take a strip of the lard’s wrapping paper and smear a tiny amount of lard around a heavy pan set on a medium heat. Add the cakes and adjust heat so you can hear a very quiet sizzle.

Three minutes on each side should suffice. Once cooked, the cakes will be a rich gold on both sides. Et voila!

See below for the various stages of the process.

Chef dinosaurs and all the young punks

Rod StewartLondon food blogger extraordinaire, MsMarmitelover, has written a brilliant post, in which she compares our contemporary food giants to the Rock Gods of the Seventies. Back in 1976, she reminisces, Rod Stewart had ducked off to Hollywood to hang out with Britt Ekland and Mick Jagger was partying with Princess Margaret on Mustique. Queue punk.

MsMarmitelover likens today’s food stars to these unattainable icons:

The same thing has happened in cooking. The culinary world is ruled by people like Gordon Ramsay: rarely behind a stove; Heston Blumenthal: a mere 400 quid  to eat at his place; Ferran Adria: the waiting list for El Bulli is, well, book me in for the year 2020; Jamie Oliver: the tory Essex boy with populist roots done good,  settled down in domestic bliss. 
So what’s the culinary equivalent of the Damned and the Pistols, in 2009? The underground restaurant scene, in which MsMarmitelover seems to be a prime mover.
People want to eat at places where they can meet the chef, even have a drink with them afterwards, where they can mingle socially, where they can momentarily dispense with the hierarchy and isolation of a traditional restaurant.
I’ve not been to an underground restaurant. As I understand it, the idea is that someone welcomes strangers into their house and cooks for them, for enough of a fee to cover costs. What a magnificent idea. I’m tempted to try myself – but perhaps I’d better go to one of these events first, and learn more about what goes on.

Marcella Hazan’s Ragu Bolognese

celery and carrotsSunday’s supper was Marcella Hazan’s Ragu Bolognese from Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking. Since Susie had another Sunday shift, I was free to prepare it early in the afternoon to the strains of 5 Live’s football commentary. I know I should get out more, enjoy the sun, maybe even go for a walk, on Sundays; but I find I’m at my most relaxed at the moment, when I’m in my basement kitchen chopping vegetables and generally pottering about. Here are a few things I learnt from making this rich, comforting and delicious dish:

  • Interestingly, there was no garlic in it.
  • The recipe called for far more chopped carrots and celery than I ever would have imagined.
  • Adding 250ml of full-fat milk realy softened the meat and sweetened the dish.
  • White wine, not read, was added.
  • In total, I reckon it cooked for four hours, on the lowest heat I could manage without the gas going out.
  • Next time I shall cut the carrots and celery finer – they looked chunky and unappealing (hence the choice of an ingredient pic above!)
  • I think it could also stand more nutmeg than Marcella recommends.

Culinary Pleasures by Nicola Humble

Culinary PleasuresI’ve just started reading a book that aims to trace Britain’s culinary evolution through the lens of its cookbooks. It’s called Culinary Pleasures, and is by Nicola Humble. Already, having only read the introduction, I’m hooked.

The other day I wrote about the introductions to Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food. Cook books, I argued, “can offer well-written prose; evoke a time or place fondly remembered (the cook book as travelogue); and reflect the society and culture of the historical period when they were written”. In the case of David’s introductions, I pointed out how readers can discern the longing for good food caused by the effects of rationing and the war; and the excitement felt by the general public, as shops and supermarkets broadened their culinary product base.

But Humble expresses the link between cookbooks, culture, society and history for more eloquently than I did in my post. Here’s an excerpt from her introduction:

This is not primarily a history of food, many excellent examples of which already exist; it is rather a cultural history of the cook book, examining it in both its most typical and its most outlandish forms to see what it has totell us about the hopes and fears, the tastes and aspirations, the fantasies and paranoias, and the changing social roles of its particular historical moment.

Already, I’m compiling a list of cook books that sound worth seeking out, from reading Humble Pleasures. These include:

  • The Constance Spry Cookery Book
  • Marcel Boulestin’s The Conduct of the Kitchen
  • Beeton’s Book of Household Management
  • Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families
  • Escoffier’s Guide to Modern Cookery

Should life be a constant meat feast?

nasi lemakLooking back over my last five posts, I see that I’ve reported on eating steak, lamb chops and lamb shanks. This is pretty much in line with global statistics. According to the Rough Guide to Food:

As a species, we are consuming more meat than ever before: world per capita meat consumption has doubled since the 1960s and, on current projections, by 2050 it will have doubled again.

Of course, much of this is down to the increasing affluence in the developing nations. But the fact remains, that in the West we eat far more meat than we need to. I used to spend half of every year in Southeast Asia with work. Time in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia taught me that tasty meals need not be based on the meat and two veg formula; and that a little meat can go a long way. Meals like Malaysia’s nasi lemak use meat as an accompaniment rather than as a centrepiece, an I think this is a really healthy attitude. Nasi lemak comprises a scoop of white rice cooked in coconut milk, to which is added ikan bilis (small, dried anchovies), roasted peanuts, fried or hard-boiled egg, sambal sauce, slices of cucumber and – perhaps – a small chicken wing or leg, or a small piece of fish. In Indonesia, I often enjoyed plates of rice which drew the majority of their protein count from nuts and tempeh (deep-fried slices of a cake made from fermented soy bean).

It’s a telling fact that, until I spent time in Southeast Asia, I never enjoyed eating meat off the bone. At Sunday lunch I would always ask or breast, not leg or wing. More fool me: not only is the darker chicken meat tastier than breast, but how spoilt I was to think that eating off the bone was somehow unsavoury or inconvenient. In many parts of Southeast Asia, people don;t have the luxury of passing up food on the bone.

In summary, a balanced diet need not revolve around a huge chunk of meat; a little meat can augment a varied dish; and bones are not evil. I must strengthen my resolve to cut down my meat intake.

[This post was brought to you by the excellent – and ad-free BBC coverage of the Spanish Grand Prix]