Archive for the ‘shopping’ Category

… we walk into a Menorcan distillery: undaunted by our desultory lunch at Cafe Baixamar we stuck to our plan and headed west for the Xoriguer Gin distillery tasting showroom, not much further along the Mahon waterfront.  T had the purchase of a bottle of G in mind and I tagged along: gin gives me shivers and not in a good way, but to my surprise we found a veritable kaleidoscope of balearic liqueurs set out for sampling.

And yet, like the fabled Marie Celeste, the echoing hall seemed recently abandoned, for beside each tasting barrel sat sinksful of cast-off tasting thimbles and at two in the afternoon our minds boggled at how long they might have been lying there.

So, summoning the bravado of Goldilocks and accompanied by a piped medley of classic rock tunes we set about our solitary tasting of the colourful concoctions:

Phew, well someone had to do it: there were rose, peppermint, coffee, chocolate, chamomile, herb, orange and some kind of butterscotch flavours; plus gin of course.  In memory – as in throat – they coalesce into a sickly sweet melange; my glee was short-lived and after downing a couple all I really wanted to do was brush my teeth, but we soldiered on, doggedly determined to do justice to the full, bewildering range.

Our verdict? I wouldn’t like to say, but we left without buying any and drank an awful lot of water afterwards.   Yet with free entry and air conditioning, I can think of worse ways to idle an odd hour in Mahon, tummy lining and teeth notwithstanding.  Needless to say, gin still makes me queasy.

Gin Xoriguer distillery
Moll de Ponent 93
971 36 21 97
entry free; open most shop hours

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A pilgrimage to Ikea is unsanctified without a trip to Wing Yip for a foodster fix.  Croydon’s oriental alimentary emporium has really been snazzing itself up lately; witness the snappy slogan for a start – I love it.  It’s also all smart uniforms and smiles nowadays – nothing wrong with that; in the time of inscrutable scowling I used to feel like an interloper adrift – just so long as they stop short of employing greeters at the door, I’m a happy punter.

Marketing pundits advocate aerosoling the scent of bread baking to foster a super-duper supermarket experience but that ruse is getting pretty tired; we’ve all cottoned on to their cotton-wool loaves.  Wing Yip has come up with something much more evocative: the stinky sock stench of durian filled our nostrils the second we breached the threshold.  Yummy – seriously. I can’t decide which part of this freaky fruit is my favourite – the foetid aroma, the weird succulent flesh or its viciously spiky carapace: don’t ever try to carry one home in your arms, it will hurt you.  Anyway, at £5.95 a kilo and not one weighing less than three we regretfully declined this time.  My hunt for durian flavoured wafers continues, however.  I opened a pack once at work in Vancouver and next thing I knew they’d evacuated the building, convinced of a gas leak.  Try this if you’re not keen on your job, but if you do please let me know where you got the biscuits.

With domestic relocation imminent (hence the Ikea mission) I’m supposed to be running down the stocks so it was just a couple of bags of whitebait, some Panko, a wasabi refill and an assortment of frozen seafood.  I did, however, purchase one of these reusable stunners to carry them home:

and for 84p Anya Hindmarch can eat my shorts. :mrgreen:

Wing Yip Croydon superstore
544 Purley Way
Tel: 020 8688 4880

Wing Yip online shop

Deciding if a durian is decent
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fregola grains
Last time I visited Fortnum & Mason I picked up a packet of fregola sarda.  Interesting stuff, fregola: it’s pasta, but of Sardinian origin and in appearance it’s couscous on steroids, reminiscent of pollen grains at a billion magnification.  Also, unlike any pasta I can think of, fregola nuggets are toasted, which not only explains the colour variations, but also adds quite a bit of flavour complexity – well, for pasta anyway – due to the Maillard Reactions.  Cooked, fregola makes interesting eating; having been dried v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y it makes for a goodly chew, and the starch on the surface of each mini boule of semolina thickens the broth slightly: I hesitate to use the term slime for reasons obvious, but aficionados will appreciate my meaning.  It’s novel, but delicious and satisfying.

Fregola Sarda is traditionally served in a shellfish broth and with a surprisingly sunny afternoon putting us all in a Mediterranean mood a credible combination came to mind.  I should say here that although using both seafood and bottarga could be construed as gilding the lily – it’s conventional to have either one or the other – my seafood happened to be a frozen assortment from oriental emporium Wing Yip (into which I may sneak again on Saturday) so it needed a bit of a fishy kick and bottarga put the boot in beautifully.    In this neck of the woods, if it’s even possible it’s pretty pricey to get hold of sparkly seafood, so I stand by my sources: not quite tradizionale, but neither travesty – it’s a kind of cucina povera after all – simmer down you puritanical purists, we’ve got other fish to fry…

fregola sarda with seafood and bottarga

fregola sarda with seafood and bottarga

Fregola Sarda with Seafood and Bottarga

serves 4

  • 3 TBS olive oil
  • 1 clove of garlic, sliced fine
  • 4 handfuls of frozen mixed seafood (squid, mussels, octopus, prawns)
  • 4 fillets frozen pollack
  • 3 chopped tomatoes or 3 TBS tomato paste or 250 ml passata
  • a couple of fennel stalks, if available
  • a pinch of saffron if wished
  • crumbled chile if you like
  • 1 glass of white wine
  • water or stock to top up
  • 4 tsp bottarga, grated

For the fregola:

  • 400-500 g fregola sarda
  • 1 litre fish stock – use a cube, concentrate, whatever
  • 1 TBS capers
  • 2 spring onions or a small bunch of chives, chopped
  • chopped fresh parsley, fennel, mint (any permutation you like)

Heat the garlic gently in the olive oil to release the fragrance, but don’t allow it to brown.   Add the white white wine and tomato, bubble up then turn the heat down to a simmer.   Throw in any or all of the flavourings if using, then sit the seafood and fish fillets atop to steam; cover and cook on a low heat for 10 minutes or so until the fish is opaque.  If there is insufficient liquid to go round, top up with a little hot stock or water.

While the seafood is cooking, bring the fish stock to a boil in another pan then tip in the fregola.   Mine took 15 minutes to cook, but follow the instructions on your pack as different brands vary.  When cooked al dente, drain the fregola in a colander then toss with the capers and chopped herbs.

Serve in shallow bowls as in the pic above, fregola on one side, seafood on the other.  Moisten the fregola with the tomato broth and sprinkle all with a little grated bottarga – and unlike me, try to remember lemon on the side for squeezing; saving a little chopped parsley to counterbalance the lurid orange wouldn’t go amiss either – buon appetito!

Footnote: this weekend’s Financial Times carries an interesting article on pollack – cheap, abundant and relatively eco-friendly – with chef endorsements and some valuable cooking advice from Anthony Demetre of Wild Honey and Arbutus; worth checking out.

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I read Nigel Slater religiously for years, but of late this gastro hag’s favourite fag has me feeling like an asylum seeker on the wrong side of a razor-wire fence.  Sophisticated as my crowded corner of Blighty sees itself, it’s outside the orbital, pretty far from any gastro-shopping epicenter and a long way from urban allotments.

Sure, I check out the local farmers’ markets, and yes, I visit local farm shops, but even so I lack access to the exotica veggie cornucopia enjoyed by a Londoner and moreover I’m a plod, so hauling my ass up to New Covent Garden for 6 am just ain’t gonna happen, and a train ticket to Borough market would up my grocery bill by a good twenty quid; not to mention supersizing my carbon footprint.  So what’s a gourmet girl to do?

A: Visit Waitrose and find these emerald gems to go home with. Frying tonight!

pic and recipe to follow….gotta cook and eat ’em first

200g bag £2.99 at Waitrose

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So Asda and Tesco have been investing wads of cash in advertising campaigns for their all-new all-phoney price war: loss leader largesse = long checkout queues.  Much as I loathe the pair – for crimes against aesthetics as much as for their ethics – I must offer my congratulations: should keep some of the johnnies-come-lately credit-crunching yet 4-wheel driving riff raff out of my local Lidl.

the supermarket trap
graffiti street art photographed in Leake Street tunnel, Waterloo last Saturday

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knobbly vegetables at an open air market
Well hooray!!  News just in that the EU (about which I am generally positive so don’t start getting the wrong idea) in its wisdom is proposing to relax its rules governing the marketing of fruit and vegetables, so the less than ideally dimensioned may once more get a look in on the supermarket shelf.

In fact, the restrictive rules apply to produce being classified as Class One grade, i.e. perfectly uniform, which is what the major supermarkets insist on having.  Farm shops, markets and discount supermarkets, plus the “cheapo” and “for cooks” ranges at the majors already sell the so-called second rate stuff so it’s hardly a revolution in the making.

As far as I can tell it’s just about size and appearance and not actual eating quality.  So while they’re thinking about change could they please think about implementing ripeness standards (or realistic potential for ripeness standards)?  These are every bit as important when it comes to fruit quality.  How many punnets-worth (hmm – why are they so often BOGOFs, I wonder) of rock-hard peaches (stone fruit indeed) and tomatoes rotted on me before I realised the wretched things would never ripen?  Too many, so now I don’t buy them unless I can smell their fragrance.

Strangely enough, Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel is facing substantial opposition from member states, so don’t hold your breath.

Minimum “standards” will be retained for the following:

  • apples
  • citrus fruit
  • kiwi fruit
  • lettuces and endives
  • peaches
  • pears
  • strawberries
  • sweet peppers
  • table grapes
  • tomatoes

With aviation costs soaring our fruit may be in for a bright future: maybe, just maybe, produce that doesn’t thrive locally will be shipped instead of flown in.  The chill of an airfreight hold destroys enzymes, killing off all potential for ripening.  Now I’m no chemist but I can taste and smell the difference.

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Cala Santandria

You’d have thought that with all the plodding around I might have slimmed down a bit, but as there’s no setting out foot without gastro attached and with Spanish temptations tickling an ever-ready appetite, we ate fabulously, well and mediocrely; never badly : with some judicious shopping and despite the facilities even eating in was pretty good – and filling.

We brought back (and therein lie a few tales):

  • gin for the gent
  • a quarter ham (need a bigger wallet and suitcase for a whole one)
  • queso semi-curado
  • sobrassada
  • wild fennel
  • yema tostada turrón – already nearly all gone!
  • no tacky touristy belt but avarcas – traditional, practical leather sandals with soles made from used tyres – worn by the locals and totally eco-fab, baby.

Avarcas, or Abarcas; artisanal leather sandals from Menorca

A few things we learned:

  • Hispanic ham & Iberian eggs are always good
  • Gin is not always good
  • mayonnaise comes from Mahón
  • prickly heat strikes suddenly
  • Menorca is a blissful Balearic alternative to party-hearty Ibiza – hardly a teenage tourist in sight
  • Menorca is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – wild flowers and plants get to do their own thing, birdies are protected, developments restricted and it’s all the better for all that
  • Menorca has 216 km of coastline and 14 000 km of dry stone walls
  • if you know a bit of French or Italian, you’ll get by in Menorquí (or use Spanish!)
  • earplugs and a compact umbrella are travel essentials

We sniffed out the quietest piglets on earth the other side of one of those dry stone walls and perched on tip-toe to say hello every time we plodded by en route to the DISKONT supermarket or Ciutadella.  This is one of their mothers.  I waited for her to stop tinkling before taking a snap but she just didn’t; good for her.

 Ciutadella Sow, Menorca

I only wish I’d known Mahón (that’s Maó in Català) airport has a jamón bar next to Departure Gate 16 before I purchased my (admittedly fairly delish thanks to the piquillo peppers and olives) tuna mediterraneo baguette: a platter of Ibérico ham plus a couple of glasses of Rioja would have made a preferable adiós, amigos, but the silent T had already joined the queue at Burger King for his bacon-double-cheese fix so I perused the shopping selection and sighed.  Well, at least it wasn’t McD’s.

There’s plenty more to tell but I must gather my thoughts, edit my pics and do my laundry.  Give me a day or two; until then, hasta la vista…

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Maldon salt flakesThe folks at Maldon have a lot to smile about.  Their sea salt was singled out as the best by Jamie Oliver, Angela Hartnett, Rowley Leigh and Sally Clarke in last week’s Guardian article Kitchen Confidential: inside the chefs’ larders, and was the most mentioned item by miles.  Pretty good salt, then.

The fragile, friable beauty of the pristine flakes of salt has really turned my head for finishing a dish, sel gris from Guerandealthough for cooking I remain loyal to the grimy Guérande sel gris: it comes by the kilo so I get to throw it around with gay abandon – and it’s full of briney flavour. Nevertheless, in place of two gauche grinders, a bowl of virginal white crystals and a black pepper lingam-alike now stand duty on our dining table.

Excuse the salacity but the sensuality of a pinch of Maldon salt flakes scattered over flatbreads before, and socca after, baking – or strewn across a raw tomato salad – can’t be beat.  Lovely stuff.  How could anyone improve on that?

Maldon smoked saltWell, here’s how: adding smoked salt to the repertoire, which is exactly what Maldon’s gone and done.  Very clever; and it’s my kind of oaky – smoky!  The fragrance explodes the moment it’s opened and I can’t wait to strew it over baked savouries for a wood-oven flavour, and use it in bread doughs for the same.


With the same flaky delicacy, an oaky hint and a caramel tint it’s going to be fantastic.

Maldon smoked sea salt
£1.95 for 125g

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Sometimes I just don’t have the guts to deal with whole fish.  I’ve never wholly regained my bravado since the Saturday in 2002 when my kind and thoughtful brother, on the way home from his job delivering spanking fresh fish to temples of gastronomy The River Café, J. Sheekey, Moro, Gordon Ramsay, The Ivy et al, dropped off a sackful of spare sardines.  Ruth & Rosie’s over-orders were my manna from heaven, except this day was a hot one and I was out being a chef myself until late afternoon …

…so by the time I returned home the piscine contents of the black bin liner had settled on my doorstep and dripped a disconcertingly fishy – in every sense – trail of blood into the house and across the floor.  With hindsight, continuing that trail straight out the back door and into the wastebin might have been wise but instead, Mr T and I, thrilled by the sight of such bounty, seized a filleting knife and set to our very own kitchen sink mattanza.  And as with all gore-fests, somewhere around the 23rd gutted sardine, queasy from the carnage and unable to meet the gaze of any more bloodshot eyes, we lost our mutual appetite, decided to double-wrap it up and dispose of the entire bundle where it should have gone in the first place, feigning nonchalance as net curtains twitched.

Ever since I’ve been happy to pay a professional to clean, cut and cook their delicious little bodies on my behalf.  Until just last week that is, when awaiting my turn at the Sainsbury’s what should I spy gliding atop the neighbouring checkout but a neat little package of eight headless and gutted Cornish somethings beginning with s.  At £1.89 a pop I went for it and they turned out pretty good, in a land-lubber kind of way.
sardines from Sainsbury\'s
I hesitate to call this a recipe as all I did was grind a tablespoon or so of fennel seeds with a couple of chilli peppers, zest half a lemon and toss the sardines with them all in a bowl with a tablespoon of olive oil to lubricate.  Set that lot aside while the barbecue warmed up and then grilled for 5 minutes each side.  I might have stuffed them with fennel or some such, but this time we enjoyed them with just a wedge of lemon – don’t want to overdo it…
Sardines grilled with chilli, fennel and lemon zest

Of course they weren’t a patch on fresh from the sea, but you don’t get those every day…

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Another confirmation of the wisdom of a locavore lifestyle arrives with the news in The Independent that MRSA may have entered the food chain in Europe.  If that doesn’t get us buying British bacon I don’t know what will, as if I wasn’t sufficiently peeved with my fellow consumers over porky products.

Save Our BaconThis might be a good opportunity to repeat the point that the UK has the highest welfare standards in pig rearing of all Europe and yes, that does make our pork products a little pricier than Dutch and Danish, but surely folks, you can taste the difference!  If you doubt, give it a taste test: buy a pack each of Danish and British streaky rashers.  Start them sizzling (separately) and breathe in through your nose; you’ll get a good idea of the relative qualities of piggy diet and environment from that alone.  Don’t know about you, but I’d rather eat bacon that smells and tastes of pork than of garbage and latrines – literally.

I see the June 2008 Waitrose Illustrated magazine carries a feature on the Save Our Bacon (i.e. save our pork farms) campaign with top chefs Fergus Henderson, Angela Hartnett, Tom Aikens and a couple of hairy bikers plus Jamie Oliver’s pig farmer friend Jimmy Doherty lending their clout:

It’s a crisis but it’s not too late.  Consumers need to demand British pork.  If it doesn’t say British on the label, don’t buy it.

Well, Jimmy would say that, wouldn’t he?  But he’s absolutely right: this Save Our Bacon idea is great, only last time I checked, Waitrose packs of dry-cured smoked streaky hailed from Denmark.  Perhaps Waitrose buyers share my own quibble with our pork industry: the prevalence of the wet cure in processing.  Just like the wretched Chorleywood Process for bread, the wet cure for bacon accelerates processing time and turns a hitherto quality product into a damp squib, but with a bigger-better-faster profit for the manufacturer, natch.

Worst of all wet cures is the saline injection: you can tell if the label states more than 100% pork.   What? this is when saline solution is injected into the meat (so prior to processing, there was more pork per 100g of product than there is afterwards) to cure it from within.  And that’s the vile white salty stuff bubbling up from your bacon.  Conversely, with the dry cure, salt surrounds the piece of meat, drawing moisture out, concentrating the meat fibres and flavours, making for densely crisp and tasty bacon.  And bacon needs to be crisp and tasty or it’s not really bacon, is it?

So, Waitrose, I add my wholehearted support to your campaign with this one proviso: insist your sources stop shooting the saline: quality pork requires quality processing.

Here is a short and far from comprehensive list of respectable online UK bacon suppliers:

 You can read about the issues involved and sign the pledge here or here and if nothing else, avoid imported pork; it’s no bargain.

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