• Crema catalana

    According to Jose Pizarro, owner of my favourite Spanish restaurant in London, “traditionally, crema catalana was made only on St Joseph’s Day (the Spanish equivalent of Father’s Day), on 19 March, by grannies and maiden aunts”. Luckily that’s no longer the case, and it makes a lovely alternative to crème brûlée, flavoured with lemon and cinnamon rather than vanilla. This is my kind of dessert: simple, rich and easy to make in advance.

    The recipe below comes courtesy of Cook & Taste, who I took a class with in Barcelona. They come highly recommended for a fun, lighthearted and reasonably boozy introduction to Catalan cookery.

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    Ingredients

    (Serves four)

    500ml milk
    peel of half a lemon
    half a cinnamon stick
    3 egg yolks
    100g sugar
    20g cornflour
    4 tbs sugar (demerara works well)
    3 figs

    Method

    1. Bring the milk to the boil with the lemon peel and cinnamon to infuse the flavours
    2. Beat the egg yolks and sugar until fluffy and white
    3. Dissolve the cornflour in a splash of water.
    4. Pour the milk into the egg mixture, add the cornflour and return to the heat
    5. Stir constantly until thickened, then remove from the heat
    6. Strain into terracotta dishes
    7. Whack the dishes on the counter (not too hard!) to level the mixture
    8. Chill for at least three hours; you can leave them overnight
    9. Sprinkle each one with demerera sugar and caramelize with a blowtorch or under the grill
    10. Quarter the fresh figs and place on top

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  • Cava: it’s all in the name

    In the low, arid hills to the west of Barcelona, a storm is brewing amid the bodegas and palm trees of the Penedès. These days, Cava is contentious.

    Cava is Spain’s most famous sparkling wine. Like Champagne, it’s made by the méthode traditionnelle, a labour-intensive process of vinification and aging. Catalunya’s Penedès region is home to ninety five percent of production; the white grapes Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada traditionally dominate the blend.

    Today’s disquiet is really all the fault of the French. The Penedès’ slopes were planted with traditional red varietals until phyloxera decimated the vineyards of Champagne in the 1800s, sending panicked winemakers in search of new sites where they could make sparkling wine. The red vines were ripped up and white ones went in. White grapes now make up 95% of the planting and Cava is the region’s best-known export.

    Cava is currently recognized with a DO, or Denominación de Origen, a mark of quality and origin applied to most respected wine regions, such as Margaux or Chianti, which carries a strict set of rules. Unusually, however, the Cava DO is not geographically limited to one part of Spain; the majority might come from the Penedès, but Cava can be made as far away as Valencia or Rioja. The regulations governing the production of Cava are also reasonably lax, especially when compared to Champagne. Cavas can be aged on their lees for just nine months (Champagne requires twelve), and a high volume of juice can be extracted from the grapes, leading to less intense flavours.

    The resulting variation in style and quality is vast. Even in the Penedès, Cavas range from the ubiquitous black bottles of Friexent to premium wines from boutique enterprises. The higher-end producers are struggling. How can they distinguish their quality product, and justify the higher price, when it’s sold under the same name as €2 plonk?

    This lack of regulation has finally pushed some producers too far. Fed up with being tarnished by a poor reputation, they are leaving the Cava DO and no longer able to use the word “Cava” to describe their sparkling wines. I visited the pioneering winery Albet i Noya who are now joining this growing trend. It’s been a hard decision, but ultimately they feel it will benefit their brand, making it clear that their refined sparklers – some aged for up to thirty months – have little in common with the lower end of the market.

    Do you agree? Do you think producers are making the right decision by leaving? What assumptions do you make about the quality of Cava on sale in the UK?

     (Interestingly, Albet i Noya are also undertaking a project to DNA test old vines they’ve discovered. So far, they’re commercially producing two brand new varietals: the red Belat is wonderful if you can get your hands on a bottle.)

  • Four twists on the Negroni

    The Negroni fad has continued apace in London this year. In no small part thanks to the likes of Polpo, Forza Win and Frank’s, Aperol and Campari are being consumed with an enthusiasm not seen for years. But while a light, sweet Aperol spritz is always going to taste best on a sun-baked rooftop in August, a classic Negroni is just as appealing once the autumn gloom has set in. Exact recipes vary, but the ingredients remain the same: Campari, sweet vermouth and gin, usually in nearly equal measures.

    The cocktail was supposedly invented in Florence in 1919, where a Count by the name of Camillo Negroni is said to have asked for the soda in his Americano – a drink invented by Campari founder, Gaspare Campari, in 1860 – to be replaced with gin. At the same time, across the pond, Campari was classified as medicinal and one of the few drinks to escape prohibition.

    Fast-forward to today, and we’re all getting a little bored. The Negroni’s become ubiquitous, with sickly, sticky attempts churned out to catch the tail end of the trend. Even Jay Rayner has taken to the pages of the Guardian to express his dismay at the prevalence of a drink he feels is “like punishment for a crime not yet committed”.

    I still love the bitterness of this crimson cocktail, but it’s time to shake things up a bit. Here are four variants on the classic:

    Negroni 2 Negroni 1

    The sloe gin Negroni

    This recipe comes courtesy of Sipsmith, who included it in a booklet handed out at a pop-up back in July. It’s sweeter, but still sufficiently strong.

    1 part sloe gin
    1 part gin
    1 (small) part Campari
    A dash of Angostura bitters
    Ice
    Twist of lemon peel

    The Negroni sbagliato

    The “wrong” Negroni is made with almost equal parts of Campari, sweet vermouth and prosecco. Also served over ice, it tastes close to the original but has less of a kick.

    1 part Campari
    1 part sweet vermouth
    1.5 parts prosecco
    Ice
    Orange slice

    The Aperol Negroni

    Using Campari’s daughter brand, Aperol, creates an easy-drinking and (unsurprisingly) rather orangey alternative.

    1 part Aperol
    1 part sweet vermouth
    1 part gin
    Ice
    Orange slice

    The Americano

    The Negroni’s forerunner is still an excellent drink in it’s own right, especially for those who like their booze, well, a little less boozy.

    1 part Campari
    1 part sweet vermouth
    1.5 parts soda
    Ice
    Twist of orange peel

    Negroni 2

    Negroni 4

    negroni 9

  • The ultimate G&T

    It’s fitting that mother’s ruin has seen such a surge of popularity in London. No other spirit has played such a part in our city’s history.

    The only small blip (drat!) is that popular opinion credits the invention of gin to a doctor in The Netherlands in the 1400s. From here, it is believed to have found its way to Britain via soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War. According to Sipsmith, this is where the phrase “Dutch courage” originated.

    The arrival of gin perfectly filled a gap in the market. Beer production was leaving large quantities of unwanted grain, the perfect material from which to create a base sprit. Supplies were sold cheap and fast, and by the 1720s London was in the throes of a period known as the “Gin Craze”. Various statistics suggest that people were drinking anywhere from two pints a week to half a pint a day (children included).

    After many attempts, the “Gin Act” of 1751 finally curtailed the boozing, with Hogarth espousing the horrors in his etching of “Gin Lane”. It was not until the 1800s that gin became a more civilized drink, and the fabulous gin palaces sprung up around London.

    Tonic has a separate and fascinating history. It was originally a true “tonic”: a brown liquid high in quinine (the primary anti-malarial used in the colonies) which was mixed with gin to mask the taste.

    – – –

    Today, the recipe for gin has been somewhat refined, and typically comprises two distillations. The first stage is to create a neutral base spirit with a minimum of 96% alcohol. This is usually made from wheat in a modern column still. The second distillation is where the botanicals, which give gin its distinct taste and aroma, come into play. The base spirit will be steeped in the botanicals before a copper still is used to vaporise it. The vapours  pass through a “swan neck” pipe and a basket of more botanicals, before condensing into a second tank. Finally, water is added to reduce the strength, usually along with a very small amount of sugar.

    To be legally called “gin”, the spirit must be dominated by the flavour of juniper. Due to EU regulation, gins are also neatly split into three styles:

    London dry gin is made solely by the process above, with no further additions or flavourings. Traditionally, it has always been seen as the higher end product.

    Distilled gin is also made by the process above, but additional flavours may be added after the second distillation. This method is increasingly popular and used by Hendrick’s, among others.

    Compound gin is not really worth mentioning; this is the cheat’s way out. The base spirit is simply flavoured with artificial flavourings, eliminating the second distillation all together.

    – – –

    So, what makes the best gin and tonic? I headed off to Bombay Sapphire’s “ultimate G&T workshop” at the Hoxton Hotel to find out. I went to the Urban Junkies preview, thanks to a friend of mine who has an unrivalled knack of winning competitions (and teddy bear claw machines).

    Bombay Sapphire, I must admit straight off, is not usually my gin of choice, but I was impressed by the event. After being swiftly welcomed with a large G&T in their signature bowl glass (to enhance the aromas), we were free to potter around the  “Apartment Kitchen” for a few minutes. The masterclass kicked off with a cheesy demonstration of how to pour the perfect drink (drain water from the ice, tip in gin, add double the amount of tonic, in case you weren’t quite sure).

    Bombay Gin 1

    Bombay Gin 2

    Bombay Gin 3

    Bombay Gin 4

    The real focus of the evening began as we gathered around the large communal table, where it emerged the decorative pots filling the shelves each held one of Bombay’s ten botanicals: juniper, lemon peel, grains of paradise, coriander, cubeb berries, orris root, almonds, cassia bark, liquorice and angelica. You can read about them in detail on their website, here. These were passed around to smell, taste and nibble – and there were certainly some surprises.

    The aim of the recipe is to create a balanced gin, with citrus, spice and earth tones complimenting one other.

    Bombay Gin 6

    Bombay Gin 7

    Bombay Gin 8

    The tasting concluded with the obvious highlight, a make-your-own G&T session. We first picked from one of their myriad infusions (orange and clove), before being recommended a garnish (fresh orange and rosemary) and one of Fever Tree’s mixers (bitter lemon). While I struggle to see these as a true gin and tonics, mine was certainly a fine cocktail.

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    Bombay Gin 17

    Bombay Gin 18

    Recipes for the infusions (including freeze dried raspberries, rhubarb, lavender and ginger) were just one part of the goodie bag, which also contained a bottle of Bombay, a Fever Tree tonic and one of their balloon glasses. At £25 a pop for a ticket, you most certainly get your money’s worth. If you’re interested in going along, which I’d highly recommend, there are classes on the 11th, 18th and 25th of June – details here.

    I’m afraid, though, that Bombay Sapphire haven’t quite converted me to their product. While the infusion was fantastic, it masked the flavours of the gin itself. For now, I’ll still plump for Hendrick’s given the choice. While it might be less traditional, I love the cucumber scent and almost sweet note from the rose petals, both of which are added after the second distillation.

    – – –

    So, gin drinkers out there, what’s your favourite? And how do you drink it?

  • Tapas at the Cookery School

    The few roads north of Oxford Circus are some of the most discordant in London, stuck in-between the chain-store tat of Londoners’ most hated mile and Marylebone’s bijou boutiques. But with the Wallace Collection, Zoilo and the Riding House Café all hidden away here, I find myself fighting through the melee increasingly often.

    I had been aware for a while that this patch is also home to the Cookery School. I’d perused their website on several occasions, but never quite made a booking. Blame it on cramming for the terrifying WSET exam, which satisfied my thirst for culinary knowledge at least temporarily. With several kitchen disasters under my belt since then (including a spectacular exploding earl grey and chocolate torte), it became clear my cooking skills needed a bit of work to catch up with my boozing abilities. So, I jumped at the chance to attend the Cookery School’s tapas class two weeks ago. 

    The “classroom” is a little smaller than you might expect, just a ground-level shop space off Little Portland Street. Inside, three spotless, stainless steel high tables are set out in front of a small professional kitchen, with a slanted mirror above to make sure everyone can see the stove.

    Cookery School stove

    Cookery School setting

    We were welcomed with a glass of Xarel-lo (a zingy Spanish white; one of the three varietals traditionally used in Cava production), which aided the necessary awkward introductions. This is a great place to come alone: all but two of our group were solo.

    From the ingredients  lined up at the side and our personally named aprons, it became pretty clear that this was going to be a hands-on session. And no sooner than glasses were drained, the bread-making began. Pre-proofed dough was divvied out between us so we could try to master the baker’s technique of whirling it around whilst tucking the edges to create a neat roll.

    Fingers limbered-up and first jokes cracked, we split into groups to each work on one of the tapas dishes. The word tapas, as I have now learnt, derives from the saucers traditionally placed atop drinks to protect them. Proprietors would place a little amuse bouche on each saucer, and from this humble beginning, tapas gradually became fancier and fancier.

    On the menu were:

    • “rustic” bread rolls
    • chorizo and chicory salad (courtesy of Moro)
    • potato tortilla
    • patatas bravas
    • pimientos de padron
    • orange and almond cake

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    While we worked in three groups, everyone crowded around to watch and taste when anything was taken to the stove. The dishes were perhaps a little conventional (I would have loved to have seen croquetas or some killer garlic and chilli prawns), but it was the technical advice that stuck in my mind at the end of the day: how to crush garlic with the flat blade of a knife, working through the clove and adding salt for traction; how to tuck in your fingers when chopping, so the knife grazes your knuckle rather then removing a fingertip; and how much salt we should really have each day (a lot, if you ask me).

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    After an hour and a half of cooking, while we were busily blackening pimientos de pardon (a Galician classic), the work tables were whipped out of the way and a communal table was laid for dinner. Wine was poured, plates were loaded and I was taken by surprise by the the food. Even the tortilla, which will never be my first choice, was rich and moist. It’s the orange and almond cakes though, that I’ll be rushing to recreate.

    Maybe it was the second glass of Xarel-lo, but I left the class enthused. I was impressed by the standard of teaching, the quality of the ingredients and the structure of the afternoon. The group meal was particularly effective at bringing the class to a leisurely conclusion.

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    You can find details of all the Cookery School’s classes and courses online here. I found the level, aimed at the serious home cook, spot-on.



    Disclosure: I was kindly invited to attend this class. 

  • Lemon, gin and Prosecco

    Ever since my flatmate ordered a version of this in the Hoxton Grill a few months ago, this cocktail has become something of an obsession in our house. It’s really too simple to post a recipe for, but I’m going to anyway. It’s nice to do more than open a bottle of wine sometimes. Plus these are very handy for getting your friends drunk when you’ve left half the ingredients for dinner by the till in Tesco…

    • 1 small-ish shot of gin
    • 1 small-ish shot of fresh lemon juice – about half a lemon
    • 1 twist of lemon peel
    • Prosecco* to top up

    *That’s a demi-sec Blanc des Blancs in the pics, which I think is too sweet, but it needed drinking up!

    Lemon, gin prosecco 2Lemon, gin Prosecco 3Lemon, gin Prosecco 4

  • Review: My Chocolate

    I’ll readily admit that I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to chocolate. Nor am I a fan of anything marketed in the “girly” direction, let alone towards hen dos. So an evening at My Chocolate came as a bit of a surprise.

    My Chocolate entrance

    Things don’t start well, as you venture down an alley behind Chancery Lane, then through a network of clammy corridors lined with industrial red pipes. Through the last door, however, you’re met with this little hallway and the smell of melting chocolate.

    Sure, there’s Prosecco on tap and and abundance of cutesy, vintage-themed accessories, but the tone of the class keeps things from getting too twee.

    We begin by comparing chocolates from around the world; just like wine, terroir has a huge impact on strength and aroma characteristics. Then it’s onto the production process, crunching cocoa nibs as we go.

    Cocoa mass, cocoa butter and sugar are used for dark chocolate, milk is added for milk chocolate, while white is made with just cocoa butter, milk and sugar. Milky Way fans stop reading now: this sickly bar contains no cocoa derivatives at all..

    My Chocolate

    Things get a little sillier as the chocolate martini-making portion begins, but the tutors  keep the class moving and engage those interested in more than necking booze.

    My Chocolate decoration

    It’s then on to making chocolates, all with Green & Black’s. We’re taught three basics: a simple truffle of melted chocolate and cream; sticky, dense American fudge; and how to flavour plain chocolate with food oils. Dark chocolate with pear works brilliantly, if you follow the instructions and only add a few drops.

    Once the truffle and fudge mixes have cooled, they’re dipped in molten chocolate before being rolled in their final coatings.

    My Chocolate final

    This isn’t for those serious about becoming a master chocolatier, but a very enjoyable evening nonetheless.

    I booked My Chocolate as a present through Virgin Experience Days, but you also can do so direct on their site, here.