Thursday, 21 August 2014

Summer to autumn by way of Fried Courgettes

Fried courgettes (Zucchini scapece)

Jane Grigson credited Elizabeth David with introducing Brits to courgettes, asserting "She was the first to relieve courgettes of their italics".  David wasn't actually the first to offer a recipe to the British market but before David wrote her book Mediterranean Food in 1950, courgettes were largely unknown of here.  The Cucurbit genus came to us mainly in the form of marrows and, if you had access to a greenhouse, there were cucumbers and melons to try growing.  It is only in the last few decades that we have also come to appreciate the merits of pumpkin and squash.  If only we hadn't been focussed on growing those large, watery marrows we wouldn't have taken so long to appreciate the courgette.  These days, there are specific seed varieties bred for courgette and marrow production although they come from the same family and a courgette can still grow to marrow proportions if you let it.

At this time of year those of use who grow our own can never get enough recipes for using courgettes.  Fruits the size of stubby pencils can swell to monstrous proportions within 2-3 days if you don't keep a close eye on them.  If growing is not your thing you'll want to skip to the end of this piece for the recipe because this is the one time of year when I have the time and opportunity to share some gardening photos taken over the past week.  If you do read on, however, you will find links to earlier recipes you might like.

Yellow courgettes

I never seem to get around to writing about the allotment in June or July.  There's far too much planting and picking to get time to write about it.  Looking back, it's May and August when I feel the urge to tell you what's happening on Plot 45.  Unlike this time last year, there's no denying there's a touch of autumn in the air.  The first sign for me is a change in light rather than temperature, but cooler nights have definitely arrived.  This time of year suits me, not least because I can sleep at night.  Growth has slowed down a bit, no more frantic picking of luscious raspberries before they tip over from perfect to spoiled in the space of 24 hours; no more trying to hide my precious blackcurrants from marauding birds; and no more livid scratches on arms earned reaching for the last of those sweet golden gooseberries... Until next year.

Raspberries 'Autumn Bliss'

Not that I'm finished with raspberries yet.  Autumn Bliss is just getting into it's stride, but it's slow-pick-pick-slow for autumn fruiters.  They may be less prolific than the high-summer berries, but their deeper flavour more than makes up for that.  It's earlier than last year but a reminder of Blueberry & Raspberry Mascarpone Pots seems appropriate now that we may be gathering the last of the berries and you need to make a little go a long way.

Borlotti Beans

And now come the borlotti beans.  Definitely a harbinger of late summer.  My favourite way of using them freshly picked is in, punchy, Borlotti Bean Bruschetta.  Dried in their pods for a couple of weeks, they store really well for re-hydrating and adding to soups and stews when the temperature really drops.  This year's crop was grown from a handful of beans squirrelled away last autumn. The wigwams of lush green growth hide long, broad green pods which turn to deep pink with white marbling maturing through to purple/red if you leave them long enough before picking.  Once you can feel fat beans inside the pods, get picking.


Changing seasons fruits

This week's haul of late raspberries, juicy wild blackberries and unknown varieties of plum and apple makes it difficult to argue summer is nearly over.  It is the perfect excuse for looking to this Almond, polenta and lemon cake with Blackberry Compote or this Plum Tart, or even Raspberry Ripple ice cream if you have enough berries.


Calendula

Growing calendula (marigold) on the allotment is the best way to hold onto summer.  It's the plant that just does not want to stop flowering.  Once planted, it will also never go away as it self-seeds prolifically.  Having to weed out new plants that come up just where you don't want them next spring is a small price to pay for the joy of having the yellow/orange blooms right through into late autumn.

Courgettes and Pumpkins

Growing biodynamically, I'm constantly on the look-out for slime trails and white dust in the cucurbit patch but courgettes and pumpkins are going strong and, incredibly, are pretty much free of slug/snail damage and powdery mildew this year.  Once courgettes get going they come thick and fast so here are a couple of favourite recipes: a surprisingly creamy Courgette Soup and Courgette, lemon & thyme linguine.

Happily for us Brits, by the time Elizabeth David was ready to publish here book French Provincial Cooking in 1960 she could write "Enterprising growers are supplying us with little courgettes as an alternative to gigantic marrows".  So, here's another recipe.  Fried courgettes or more properly Zucchini Scapece (meaning marinaded in vinegar and mint) as it is surely the Italians who are the courgette's greatest appreciators.  It's based on the the recipe in Claudia Roden's The Food of Italy.  My copy is the original 1989 version so hopefully the recipe is in the new updated version published earlier this year.  I know in Italy it would be served as a separate course but I also like it alongside roast lamb.

Fried Courgettes (Zucchini Scapece)
(Serves 4)

500g (3 medium) Courgettes sliced diagonally, about 4mm thick
Salt
1 clove of garlic, whole
1 clove of garlic, very finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
1 small dried, deseeded, chilli crumbled
A handful of fresh mint, chopped
2 tablespoons wine vinegar (I prefer Moscato vinegar but red or white wine vinegar will do)

Salt the sliced courgettes lightly and leave them to release water for up to an hour (if the courgettes are small you won't need to salt them but do let them release their water).  Pat dry thoroughly with kitchen paper.
Use enough olive oil to just cover the bottom of a large frying pan.  Add one clove of peeled garlic and heat to soften and brown lightly before removing and discarding it.
Fry the courgette slices in batches to brown on both sides.  Drain on kitchen paper.  Layer in a serving dish with the chopped garlic, chilli, mint and vinegar.  Serve at room temperature.


Thursday, 7 August 2014

Courgette, lemon and thyme linguine

Courgette, lemon & thyme linguine


At this time of year it sometimes feels like we've been abandoned in London.  There's a flurry of "see you in two weeks" from friends and family then silence. - sand and social media don't mix.  Fact is, I love it.  There's altogether more space to breathe and no pressure to do anything at all.  The tourists are still with us, of course, but although they know the trendiest places to eat, they don't know the best places to eat.  We can walk into a restaurant - "No reservation?  No problem."  We can sit in a cool, dark cinema watching a film without a disapproving "Why do you want to do that in summer?".  We can travel on the tube without fighting for a square inch of space - though, in the heat of a London summer, we'd rather not.  And when the heat of the city gets too much, we can take the train from St Pancras to Rye for a Camber Sands cooling sea breeze - but just for the day.

"Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea ....."
Trebetherick by John Betjeman


First courgettes
























All in all, summer in the city is good.  Here, glorious deep blue skies in the early morning morph into washed-out denim by mid-afternoon.  On bad days a sticky oppressiveness settles over the city.  Everything that involves moving is done as early as possible and here I am in the late afternoon sitting cross-legged in cool cotton pyjamas - well I'm going nowhere and nobody's around to be shocked.  What cooking is done is of the 'little energy used' variety and mostly composed of whatever's cropping on the allotment.  How anyone who has an allotment can go away at this time of year is a mystery to me.  There's fruit to pick, potatoes to be dug and onions to be pulled.  And there are the courgettes - slender little flower-topped fingers one day turn to monster mutants the next.

So, I guess my audience for this post, at this time, will be small, but probably like-minded.  I've kept it short because we stay-at-homes also want to enjoy the short, precious period of languor.  In this spirit, here's a recipe for the courgette glut that will hardly raise a bead of moisture on a fevered brow.  Cut your courgettes into the finest strips you can.  A mandolin will make life even easier if you have one.

Courgette, lemon and thyme linguine
(Serves 2 as a main course)

150g dried or fresh linguine pasta per person
1 medium sized or 2 small courgettes (a mix of green and yellow is good), cut into fine strips
50g unsalted butter
1 fat clove of garlic, thinly sliced
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
Finely grated rind of half a lemon and a squeeze of juice
1 courgette flower, sliced (optional)
Salt and pepper

Boil the pasta in a large pan of salted water for the required cooking time, depending on whether it is fresh or dried.  Whilst it's cooking, melt the butter in a separate pan and add the garlic to soften. Add the strips of courgette and cook for no more than 2-3 minutes.  Take off the heat and add the cooked and drained pasta, a couple of spoons of pasta water (unless the courgettes have released enough water), the thyme and lemon rind and toss well.  Add the sliced courgette flower, if using, a squeeze of lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Serve with grated parmesan.


Friday, 25 July 2014

Barrafina, Adelaide Street WC2

Baked John Dory
at Barrafina, Adelaide Street

Did I really need to stick to my two visit rule before writing about the new Barrafina?  I know the original Barrafina on Soho's Frith Street pretty well so could it be so different?  Well, yes and no.  First there's the room.  Occupying a corner site, it's curved frontage is hard to miss and it feels so much bigger than the Frith Street original.  Inside, all the essentials of the Barrafina I know and love are in place - granite, glass, stainless steel, red-topped stools, Estrella on tap, happy staff, and the aroma of damn good food coming from the open kitchen.  Long-time employee, José Etura is front of house.  In these early days, Nieves Barragan Mohacho, Executive Head Chef for Barrafina and Fino restaurants, is hands-on in that kitchen, and what capable hands they are.  Owners Sam and Eddie Hart don their white jackets and one of them will generally be greeting and serving.

The extra space in Adelaide Street has allowed for a longer bar accommodating 29 stools and more space to wait comfortably for one of them.  It's also good to see there's space to breath for the staff, more room for equipment and, hence, a more extensive and adventurous menu.  Don't get me wrong, after 7 years of eating at Barrafina in Soho I still feel a sense of excitement thinking of what might be on the menu this time.  But the two tiny cooking areas there do restrict what can be served up even by the best chefs, and Barrafina's are very good indeed.

Stuffed Courgette Flower
at Barrafina, Adelaide Street

At this second incarnation the Barrafina philosophy holds true - top quality ingredients served up with "minimum fuss".  The menu at first glance looks similar and you're likely to find some old favourites but a closer look reveals additional sections on 'Frituras' and 'Chargrill'.  Suckling Pig's Ears or Milk Fed Lamb's Brains, perhaps.  The biggest difference comes from the installation of a Josper charcoal oven which allows dishes like whole fish for sharing to be served up in 10 minutes.  It also produces those Milk Fed Lamb's Kidneys, served on their skewer grill over a little hillock of smoking charcoal.

Dishes we tried included Crab Croquetas which were outstanding; a lovely mix of dark and white meat, good consistency and just enough chilli heat to bring out the crab flavour.  A fried Courgette Flower stuffed with goats cheese, finished with honey and a bunch of micro herbs, was pretty as a picture and, though a safe choice, was summery and delicious.  The John Dory was succulent and perfectly cooked - simply baked with a crust of breadcrumbs, garlic, herbs and olive oil and dished up with a wedge of lemon. We ordered the deep-fried Ortiguillas - Sea Anemone -  out of curiosity but didn't really get the point of them.  But the hints of iodine brought memories of seashore rockpools.  A dessert of Milhojas was as rich as it looks in this photograph but a delicious version and perfect for sharing.

If that Estrella beer doesn't grab you, there is a good list of sherries and wines , including a specially selected Manzanilla en Rama.  Personally, I find a glass or two of the familiar Cuatro Rayas 2013 Verdejo Viñedos Rueda, at £5 a glass, difficult to resist.

Milhojas
at Barrafina, Adelaide Street

So, yes I did go twice, and so will you.  The biggest problem now is in choosing which Barrafina to head for.  Go to Barrafina Frith Street for the cooking of Allyson McQuade - perfect small tapas.  Go to Adelaide Street for more space, a bigger menu and the fish and meat dishes that come out of that Josper charcoal oven.  Join the queue at either Barrafina for the buzz, great food and drink and excellent service.

Barrafina
10 Adelaide Street
London WC2N 4HZ
29 stools
No reservations, first come first served
Adelaide Street has more space than Frith Street to enjoy a glass and a bite while you wait for a seat.
Groups of 8+ can book the downstairs private dining room


Friday, 11 July 2014

Cherry & Almond Strudel

Cherry & Almond Strudel

The soft fruit season is always a time of too much arriving too quickly and then come the cherries, sometimes before we've had time to eat our fill of strawberries and raspberries.  This year is racing along on the fruit front.  The cherries are here and very soon we'll be feasting on plums too. Checking the the allotments' communal plum trees today, it looks like we're in for a bumper crop.  The boughs are laden with clusters of green fruit just beginning to show a streak of purple.

So, while I continue to pick raspberries and gooseberries, and now the first blackcurrants, am busy bottling fruit and making ice cream, there are cherries to consider.  So, what to do with the first of cherries?  Well, as I have a few sheets of filo pastry left over from making a chicken pastilla, strudel immediately comes to mind.  A recent visit to Trieste, where a Mitteleuropean cuisine still fights for supremacy with Italian food, reminded me that strudel is not only about apples. Cherry Strudel was much in evidence, a legacy of Trieste's Habsburg era.

Cherries have an affinity with almonds.  Not surprising when you consider the tiny kernel inside the stone of cherries, apricots and peaches (all stone fruit in fact) has an almond flavour and is known as noyau.  Don't worry, I'm not going to suggest you take a hammer to the cherry stones here.  If you do want to try extracting the noyau, apricots are a bit more rewarding.  Add a few to an Amaretti biscuit mix for a delicious hint of bitter almond.  I have to give the warning to use sparingly as they do contain tiny traces of cyanide, though you'd have to eat quite some quantity for it to have any effect..

Cherry Strudel & cream

Having very good juicy, sweet cherries with just a hint of sharpness, (variety Summer Sun) I didn't want to interfere with their flavour too much so I've kept the filling simple for this one.

Cherry & Almond Strudel
(Serves 4)

350g (12oz) cherries (weight before removing stones)
60g (2oz)caster sugar (depending on sweetness of cherries)
1 level teaspoon of cinnamon
30g (1oz) finely chopped almonds or hazelnuts of a mix of both
30g (1oz) roughly chopped almonds (preferably skins removed)
2 sheets of filo pastry (about 45cm x 25cm)
60g (2oz) unsalted butter, melted
1 heaped teaspoon of icing sugar

STEP 1
Heat oven to 180C (160C Fan)/Gas 4.  Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
Remove the stones from the cherries and mix with the caster sugar and cinnamon.
Combine both the fine and roughly chopped nuts.

STEP 2
Place first sheet of filo  pastry on a clean tea towel, narrow end closest to you, and butter the sheet, leaving 1cm unbuttered on the end farthest away from you.  Brush that strip lightly with water.
Scatter the nuts over the pastry to within 1cm of each side.
Add the cherries in a heap at the end closest to you about 5-6cm from the edge and leaving 3-4cm either side uncovered.
Place the uncovered pastry nearest to you over the cherries then use the tea towel to help roll almost to the far edge. Tuck the right and left edges up into the parcel to help seal-in the contents and finish rolling to the end.  Make sure the water-brushed pastry strip seals to the parcel.  Place it on the lined baking sheet.  Brush with melted butter.
Repeat STEP 2 with the second pastry sheet and then bake the parcels in the oven for 30 minutes.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes. Cut each pastry in two, dust with sifted icing sugar and serve. 
Good with double cream or vanilla ice cream.

Note: It's also almost time for the Brogdale Cherry Festival - this year it's 19-20 July.

Other recipes using cherries:

Cherries with almonds & Sabayon sauce

Summer Pudding with cherries

Cherry frangipane tart

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Trieste - is that Italy?

Chiesa San Spiridione
Trieste

How to begin a piece on Trieste?  I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked "Trieste, where is that?" Jan Morris associated the city with a sense of "nowhereness".  In her book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere Morris writes "People who have never been there generally don't know where it is.  Visitors tend to leave it puzzled and, when they get home, remember it with a vague sense of mystery."   Admittedly four days is not long to try to get under the skin of a city, but it was long enough to feel a certain dislocation, in place and time, walking the streets of Trieste.  

Arriving in the late evening, stepping from the airport bus into grey, quiet streets is not the best introduction to a city.  Such a lack of exuberance seems thoroughly un-Italian - no honking horns, no fearful step onto a pedestrian crossing, no loud conversations at caffè tables.  A few minutes of walking and our eyes are no longer fixed to grey stone but sunset over the Adriatic - a satisfying dish in lieu of the dinner we searched for in vain that night.

Piazza Unità
Trieste

Next morning the sun performed its magic, bathing the grey stone in a more welcoming tone and revealing a teal blue adriatic sea.  That evening we caught the sunset from the Piazza Unità a little earlier, just as it illuminated the gilding on the Palazzo di Governo.

Palazzo di Governo, Piazza Unità
Trieste

Trieste is a curious city, reflecting its location and past.  It occupies the last sliver of Italian soil a mere 5 miles from the Slovenian border and petering out into Croatia to the south.  Originally an Illyrian coastal village trading in fish, salt, olive oil and wine, it was colonised by Rome, occupied by Venice and France, before being protected and declared a Free Port by the Habsburgs. Its position, and its enterprising merchants, turned Trieste into a major link between Europe and Asia until the break-up of the Habsburg empire.  Giacomo Casanova sojourned in Trieste; James Joyce lived in the city; Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, passed through its streets in their coffins 5 days after being assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip.

Following the First World War the city came under Italian rule.  In the mid-1930s Mussolini's fascists made Trieste one of its showpieces.  When Italy turned against the German Reich, the city was annexed by Germany and became the only piece of Italian soil to have a concentration camp. Trieste was occupied by Britain, America and Yugoslavia and briefly become an Independent Free Territory under the United Nations.  In 1954 the port city of Trieste returned to Italy and its surroundings were handed to Yugoslavia and became, as Jan Morris puts it, "Italian by sovereignty but in temperament more or less alone".  The years of uncertainty sparked race riots in Trieste but these days the Slovene language has official parity with Italian.  Jan Morris' observation that "the further you walk out towards the perimeter of the city, the more slav it feels" still holds true.

On the road to Duino

In the heat of summer Trieste has a languorous air but, in winter, a vicious wind known as the Bora whips through the city.  While in Trieste, Joyce wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, most of Dubliners and devised much of Ulysses along with his play Exiles.  The city is clearly proud of the association, and in this otherwise most un-touristy city, there's a James Joyce trail.  Our visit coincided with the annual 'Bloomsday', celebrating all things Joycian.  A display of paintings, both amusing and lewd, by Ugo Pierri  hosted by the Joyce Museum was, for us, the highlight.

The leafy hillside of Colle Capitolino leading to the Museo and Cattedrale St Giusto and Basilica Romano and the narrow streets of the old town below provide relief from the heat.  The Teatro Romano, nestled between the two, is impressively preserved but not overly restored. 

Dome - Chiesa di San Spiridione
Trieste

The Serbian Orthodox Church of San Spiridione on Via San Spiridione was far and away the most impressive church we saw in Trieste.  Recently renovated, it's spectacular inside and out yet feels quite intimate.  The main food market housed in an interesting, if neglected, modernist building is mainly made up of fruit & vegetable stalls with just one or two fish and meat counters.  Much better was the small outdoor market beside Canale Grande (close to Chiesa San Spiridione) where a cluster of stalls were stacked with 'bio' fruit and vegetables seeming, from the vehicles, to have been brought in from nearby Slovenia.
 
Caffè San Marco
Trieste
           
So, what of the food in Trieste and what of the coffee? - this is the home of Illy after all.  I'm not a particular fan of Italian coffee but, of the 'names', Illy is the best-respected.  The Caffè San Marco on Via Cesare Battista, with its spectacular eagle-topped Copper Elektra machine, produced the best espresso.  Dating from the Habsburg era, though substantially rebuilt after WWII, it has retained the look and feel of a Viennese cafe.  On a smaller scale Pasticceria Pirona is pretty unmissable too.  Dating from the same era, it's a lovely place to stand with your macchiato and choose a tiny cake from one of the polished wood and glass cabinets.  Both places have been popular with poets and writers for over a century.

Spaghetti alla Vongole
Hostaria Malcanton

Trieste

There is still a Habsburg influence on the food in Trieste.  What we had of that was on the stodgy side so we preferred to feast on seafood and pasta, following up with gelato - in this, at least, Trieste felt like Italy.  Hosteria Malcanton on Via Malcanton in the old town was a good starting point. It's an honest, checked-tablecloth kind of place with good-value local wines.  A generous plate of Spaghetti alla Vongole with asparagus and a plate of Monkfish risotto with crisped lardo were all we needed for lunch.  The bill for two with a carafe of the hostaria's Friuli wine came to 38 Euros.

Mezzeluna Ripiene
Alla Dama Bianca

Duino

The village of Duino is a short bus ride away from Trieste.  With the road hugging the coast north out of the city we saw what "going to the beach" means for locals.  The 'Barcola' is a long concrete promenade on the road to Miramare Castle.  The lack of sand seems not the least off-putting to the dedicated sun worshippers with the Adriatic to dip into.  Snaking our way through tiny mountain villages the bus arrived at the quiet, picturesque village of Duino complete with its 14th century castle.  The classy but relaxed Alla Dama Bianca proved the perfect antidote to the heat of the city.  We idled away an hour sipping prosecco on a shady terrace and envied the swimmers their cooling dips in the sea (go prepared).  

Tagliolini Marinara
Alla Dama Bianca

Duino

Lunch was simple and perfect - a  buttery dish of seafood Mezzeluna Ripiene, given crunch by a scattering of poppy seeds, a plate of Tagliolini Marinara followed by a shared Grilled Orata with vegetables and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.  A bottle of Vinnae from the local Jermann vineyard at Collio and coffee afterwards brought the bill to just over 100 Euros.  If you want to stay somewhere quiet, they have rooms at Alla Dama Bianca.

Grilled and filleted Orata & vegetables 
Alla Dama Bianca
Duane

You'll have no difficulty finding a gelateria in Trieste but I recommend Gelato Marco on Via Malcanton.  The gelato is made on site, there is every flavour you could dream of, both dairy and non-dairy, and the Nocciola is outstanding.

When the diners, drinkers and gelato-eaters have had their fill there is undoubtedly an air of melancholia about Trieste.  Maybe it's the relics of its turbulent past, its rusting warehouses, overgrown railway lines and abandoned jetties, disregarded in favour of new industries.  Then there's that mysterious overgrown, padlocked garden we stumbled upon, seemingly lying unused for decades.  Trieste has many things to like but Jan Morris is right, the city is a puzzle.  But, given all it has experienced, it's not surprising it leaves you with the feeling that you didn't quite get under its skin.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Honey & Co - Food From the Middle East

Honey & Co: Food From the Middle East

I wrote about Honey & Co the restaurant back in March 2013.  I mentioned "the pavement stumblers".  People like me caught out by the dip in the pathway a moment after my attention was drawn to the eye-catching display of cakes in the window.  Now I know the cakes were Honey & Co's PR campaign.  It proved a fantastically effective advertising tool for a restaurant being created on a shoestring budget, and already there's a book.

It's not unusual for a book to grow from the seed of a restaurant.  Most will start off telling the reader about the restaurant, the author, the inspiration and philosophy.  Few will tell you how the owners fell in love over oven-fresh burek and pigeon stuffed with pine nut rice.  How they sneered at each others introductions to "Haifa's best falafel" and "Jerusalem's best falafel", each secretly enjoying both.  Few will introduce you to the staff, from the loveable front-of-house Rachael to "sweet, funny" Carlos the kitchen porter.  Fewer still will feel a tale of a "big-hearted broad-shouldered London cabbie and an industrial mixer worth telling.  Then there's the habit of attaching names and personal stories to familiar faces.  These are the things that are important to Itamar Srulovich (former Head Chef at Ottolenghi) and Sarit Packer (former Head of Pastry at Ottolenghi and Executive Chef at Nopi), owners of Honey & Co the restaurant and, now, authors.  After a frantic 6 weeks of work they walked into their little restaurant kitchen for the first time and chose to preserve lemons.  They put the jars on the little shelf in the restaurant "to place our hope in a fortunate future".

I wanted to do this review without being influenced by my visits to the restaurant, but even before I finished the "Welcome" page I knew this was going to be impossible.  Itamar explains my difficulty: "We wanted to write this book to capture the essence of who we are - not just the two of us but also our little restaurant and the hive it is, the people we work with, the people we feed and the customers who became friends, and the tasty, easy, homey food that brings us all together."  This book fulfills the promise of that sentence.  Sometimes you aren't sure who's 'voice' you are 'hearing' but that matters not a jot.

They start with a few base recipes such as Sweet spice mix and Baharat, a savoury spice mix.  Neither has a massively long list of ingredients and the alluring photograph of spices makes you want to get roasting and grinding.  Mezze takes up a large part  of the book: raw, cured, canned, pickled, breads, dips, spreads, purees, baked, fried and cracked - from sweet Uri buri prawns (with a sweetly romantic association) and rich pastry Borekitas to spicy Turkish Kisir.  Salads of Beetroot & plums in a rose & walnut dressing and an aromatic plate of Poached quince with curd cheese and honeyed hazelnuts are followed by dishes such as Lamb Siniya, like a Middle-Eastern shepherd's pie; a festive tagine Madfunia; Slow-cooked lamb shoulder with plums and roses, needing only a mound of rice or couscous to serve; Octopus in meshwiya sauce with celery salad and Cauliflower 'shawarma' which makes use of that Baharat spice mix.

I've already mentioned my love of Honey & Co's cakes and here you will find recipes for Cherry, pistachio and coconut cake and vibrant Saffron & lemon syrup cake.  Amongst the dessert recipes I know I'll make is Marzipan & almond cakes with roasted plums, and their sumptuous signature dish of Feta & honey cheesecake on a kadaif pastry base.

Aubergine Sabich - Photo: Saffron Strands
Recipe: Honey & Co: Food From the Middle East

So many recipes I really want to make, but what have I tried?  First up, Aubergine Sabich.  As the authors say, "there is nothing sophisticated here".  It's an easy recipe, just good ingredients, freshly prepared and pepped-up with a good dressing but everything comes together deliciously.  There's really no excuse for not making your own pitta bread here.  I've never felt an affinity with yeast so choosing to make pitta was a deliberate test of the instructions.  My hand was held all the way and the oven yielded beautiful domes of puffed-up bread.  I now have an urgent need to make Bukhari bread and Milk bun.  Goodness, I've become a bread baker at last!

White chocolate, pine nuts, olive oil & candied lemon zest - Photo: Saffron Strands
Recipe: Honey & Co: Food From the Middle East

Next came a dessert of White chocolate, pine nuts, olive oil & candied lemon zest.  I chose to make this dish because I, too, generally,"see no point in white chocolate" but was seduced by the assurance that this would be wonderful, and so it was.  It's a bit rich, but I was warned.  Again, the instructions were really clear and it was a pleasure to make. My version is tinged green due to the particular unfiltered oil used.  The flavour was delicious.

Each section of this book is lightly spiced with just the right amount of anecdote and memory.  It's blindingly obvious that hearts and souls and a great deal of love have gone into it.  That's not something I come across too often in a cookbook.  It also made me laugh out loud more than once.  Photographs by Patricia Niven capture perfectly the warmth of the place, food and the owners.  And if you're wondering about those falafels they're both in here; Jerusalem-style for Itamar and Haifa-style for Sarit, plus a Yemeni-style one for family roots.


Book courtesy of Salt Yard Books, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton

Thursday, 5 June 2014

All about Origin at Monmouth Coffee


Finca El Guamal, Huila, Colombia
Farmed by Guillermo Libardo Ome
























Two cups of coffee a day is my limit.  One filter and one double espresso.  Modest by the standards of most coffee drinkers, positively wimpish to many.  What I drink has to be good and I'm happy to pay for it.  Not that I'll hand over my hard-earned money to just anyone with a shiny La Marzocco - not twice anyway.  Call me what you will - connoisseur; addict; coffee snob; or worse - but it's taken me a while to arrive at this place and I'm happy to be here.  So where is "here"?  It's appreciating the work that has gone into a carefully sourced coffee, the growing, the exporting, the roasting and the serving, whether it's beans to take home or a shot on the go.  Most of all it's a thoughtfulness about what I'm buying because I now understand why coffee 'origin' really matters.

ORIGIN: beginning, foundation, root, starting point
The OED

Our thirst for coffee is growing.  Certainly in London there seems to be an endless stream of new coffee shop openings, both chain and independents.  But the cultivation of the Coffea plant is suffering a three pronged attack: climatic oscillations, disease and low pricing.  Most of the coffee industry is still based on purchasing at the lowest price, even in the speciality coffee market.

I asked AJ Kinnell, head of quality assurance at London's Monmouth Coffee, to explain to me the effect of farm-gate pricing.  She told me "If you're a farmer you have to sell 100% of your coffee. You'll have a speciality coffee and you need a market for your lower grade as well.  If the lower quality doesn't go somewhere the good quality can't be grown and the farms go out of business, so big buyers have a role" in taking that coffee.  In the speciality market, however, she feels "buyers could be doing so much more to help growers" just by paying a little bit more.

"The speciality coffee business is about real people...... 
Real product in a cup, the fruit of real effort somewhere 
at the end of a remote track in Guatemala or Rwanda 
or Somalia."
Mercanta, The Coffee Hunters

The impact of low prices on producers and the benefits from paying a premium for top quality have been brought home to Monmouth by their direct sourcing in Colombia.  Practically and financially it has taken many years for them to be able to source in this way.  AJ told me they'd been having difficulty finding good quality Colombian beans over a period of time so decided to step it up a bit.  Instead of going in and buying a predetermined amount of beans, they spread the word to small farmers that they were to hold a competition. There were lots of entrants and they selected 22 small lots of coffee"One of the coffees was only 2 bags because the farm it came from only produced 2 bags of top grade beans that season.  The farmer still had to find a buyer for the lesser grade of beans he produced but he earned a lot of money for those 2 bags and he got to sell his coffee for the first time with his own farm name on it.  For a long time it had just been put into a generic blend."

Monmouth's Chief Buyer, Flori Marin, told me how emotional the competitions are.  "The farmers know we are going to pay a premium.  It's a massive thing for them.  If the grower simply sells to the market they are paid what people think the coffee's worth.  Sometimes it's bought even without tasting.  The coffees we tasted and selected in Colombia the first time were amazing".  There were 86 entries for their first competition and by the second, 6 months later, 360 entries.  "We were able to pay a significant premium over the market rate and people were talking of using the money to pay off their mortgage or move their home down the hill so their children could get to school more easily". Paying a premium price for top quality beans improves the lives of the farmers and enables them to invest in their farms and families to secure viability for the next generation.  Seeing directly the effect of their actions has only made Monmouth more determined to play the long game and work with the farmers to improve coffee origin.

Monmouth don't often talk about themselves.  They've been around for more than 30 years and are focused on sourcing and roasting rather than serving cups of coffee.  The shops are there so that customers have the opportunity to taste the coffees before buying a bag to take home - though that doesn't stop Monmouth being a regular pit-stop for many London coffee lovers.  Their passion is for improving the quality of coffee and the lives of the coffee growers.  Anita Le Roy explains, "The area I wanted to develop focused on origin and quality.  We don't publish vision and mission statements, but we do know what we want to achieve.  The aim of the company is to have a positive impact on quality and price at origin and a positive impact on service and quality for the consumer."  Having only three direct London outlets is a deliberate policy to retain focus on what's important to them.

"The growing number of good independent coffee shops is 
welcome but it's an increase in the number of independent 
roasters that will really raise the bar for good coffee and 
give a better deal to the growers".
Anita Le Roy
Monmouth Coffee

A market for quality coffee has to exist and I asked Anita what she thought was needed to raise customers' expectations for their daily drink.  She told me that although the growing number of independent coffee shops is welcome, "It's an increase in the number of independent roasters that will really raise the bar for good coffee and give a better deal to the growers.  In the 1980's when things were very difficult for us to buy better coffee, with more traceability, I knew what would change things was if there were more roasters asking for high quality.  That would have changed what the suppliers were offering.  Whenever I asked for different coffees I was told no, there was no demand for it".  Throughout the 1980s and 90s "there were so many times when we would show interested people what we were doing.  Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia came to see us in the mid-90's before they started supplying the Seattle Coffee Co (they later went on to set up Union Coffee).  It was only about 6-7 years ago that the floodgates opened.  We're really happy about it but I think we still need more roasters."

Coffee Facts:
2009/10 coffee exports US$15.4 billion (est)
2nd most traded commodity after oil
25+ major species of Coffea
60%+ of world production is arabica and canephora (robusta)
26 million workers employed in 52 producing countries

More often than not these days it's beans from one of those Monmouth Colombian coffees that go into my burr grinder.  Currently it's Finca El Guamal grown by Guillermo Libardo Ome at Huila but the coffees come in small lots, so whats on the counter changes regularly.  It's not entirely altruistic on my part as the Colombian coffees Monmouth source are exceptional. Buying better coffee can make a huge difference to the farmers allowing them to invest in the future.  It's what Monmouth Coffee see as "sustainable, fair and equal trade" and it's why these days I'm more thoughtful in my coffee buying habits.

Monmouth Coffee Company
London

Sources and further reading:
Kew Royal Botanic Gardens
A Coffee Crop Withers by Elisabeth Malkin - The New York Times May 5, 2014