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Chipping Campden: the chocolate-box village that aims for your sweet tooth

August 21, 2010

I originally planned to open with the following: “Last weekend I went to the Cotswolds.” On re-reading, I decided it was the most horrendously middle class statement I’ve ever made. But the fact still stands – I did indeed go to the Cotswolds last weekend – so I’ve tried to bury it in an equally ridiculous barrage of self mockery.

And with that out the way, I’ll move on.

Thanks to friends in high places, we were able to blag a free weekend at one of Landmark Trust’s heritage site in Chipping Camden – a quintessential chocolate-box village. Our first stop was Badgers Hall tea room for scones freshly baked in an aga (it couldn’t get more middle class) and served with jam and cream. Being British, I’ve obviously eaten scones before. But this was in a different league – even a cream tea in Cornwall would have a hard time competing.

Unsurprisingly, the Cotswolds isn’t cheap. Its reputation as a celebrity hideaway has made room for expensive restaurants, but the food itself is of a very high quality and several places have earned themselves AA rosettes and impressive positions in the Good Food Guide.

We went to The Kings Hotel restaurant at 9pm (the only slot left when we went to book in the afternoon). It had an air of fine dining, with attentive waiters and a menu of carefully composed dishes. The scallops to start were delicious, and after our lunchtime excess we all opted for the same main: vegetable terrine with pesto and roast potato dumplings.

The highlight, though, was the pudding – a crisp blueberry tart with sweet apple sorbet. Despite being almost uncomfortably full by this point, I had no problems polishing off every last crumb.

There’s something about this very traditional English village that leans itself to world class cake-making. Treacle tarts, syrup sponges, lemon drizzle, ginger loaf cake – it all looked, smelt and tasted delicious. There’s a famous Pudding Club at the Three Ways House Hotel just up the road, which prides itself on keeping traditional British puds alive. We didn’t visit this time round, but judging from the quality of cakes in the area, it’s definitely something I’d plan for in the future.

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Chin Chin Laboratories – London’s worst kept secret

August 18, 2010

Chin Chin LaboratoriesHere’s the thing about hidden gems – they never stay hidden for long. A couple of weeks ago, Chin Chin Laboratories was an unknown quantity, found only by chance if you happened to be wondering around the canal in Camden. Mention it now and people nod in wild recognition, with a fair few claiming to have ‘discovered’ the place weeks ago.

My ‘discovery’ came about when a colleague dragged half the office there last week on the promise of saffron ice cream with toasted pistachios (the weekly special). Chin Chin Labs is London’s first nitro-ice cream parlour, tucked away inside Camden Lock with minimal signage (you’d easily miss it if it wasn’t for the queues snaking out the door).

The unit itself is tiny with room for half a dozen people tops. Test tubes filled with chocolate popping candy, honeycomb, and the much-anticipated toasted pistachio cover the shelves, along with beakers of blueberry, raspberry and salted caramel sauces. Behind the glass barrier are two large tanks of liquid nitrogen, and owner Ahrash – in white lab coat and goggles – explains the process of mixing the cream in with the nitrogen freezes it in four seconds without the need for additives and emulsifiers.

Ahrash at Chin Chin LabsWe all had the saffron ice cream, partly because it sounded delectable and partly because Ahrash can only make one flavour at a time so it’s easier if you order a batch. But the whole process is well worth queuing for. Standing in the dry vapour coming off the nitrogen and watching your ice cream freeze under 190-degree temperatures definitely gives you more for your money. Ahresh and his wife Nyisha are happy to dish out explanations, and the ice cream itself is delicious (I had saffron with blueberry sauce and chocolate popping candy, just to shake things up a bit).

If you find yourself in North London, make sure you have enough time to spare for a trip to Chin Chin Labs.

There’s a glass of fat in Chinese takeaways… Yeah, and?

August 6, 2010

www.theedinburghblog.co.ukFor those of you who don’t pour over bizarre articles the Metro every morning,  I have some rather bad news. Are you sitting down? Ok, so. It appears that takeaways have fat in them. And not just a small amount. Oh no. They have – wait for it – a lot of fat in them. A whole glass of fat, in fact.

Are you sensing the tone? That, in case you couldn’t tell, is sarcasm. Because of course takeaways have fat in them. If the oil gathering in pools atop your chicken tikka masala didn’t give it away, then surely the grease left trickling down your chin after a chow mein will. A glass of fat in a Chinese takeaway? Sure, I can believe that. Over 2,800 calories in a meal of prawn crackers, crispy duck, chicken balls and spring rolls? Yep, sounds about right.

How has this so-called ‘research’ become newsworthy? Especially when the company behind it happens to be promoting a new weight loss pill (I  assume we’re supposed to pop one of these after our takeaway to cancel it out).

Instead of pill-popping, how about just eating fewer takeaways? As nutritionist Mary Strugar put it: “Takeaways as an occasional treat are fine. But when such high volumes of fat, calories and salt are consumed on a more regular basis you’re in serious danger of putting your health on the line.”

So everyone, takeaways are bad for you.  Spread the word.

Can Jamie’s Thirty Minute Meals turn us into a nation of chefs? I’m not so sure…

July 23, 2010

Jame Oliver, treehouse1977Hold on to your hats, the unthinkable has happened. Jamie Oliver is to front a new series! On television! About cooking!

Okay, so I’m being a bit unfair. I generally enjoy Jamie’s chuck-it-in-the-pan, apples-and-pears routine. But he seems to pop up on every ‘new concept’ cooking programme, particularly ones commissioned by Channel 4.

This latest offering will see Jamie cooking “exciting, varied and seasonal” dishes in 30 minutes, in an arguably misguided attempt to turn people off takeaways.

The makers of Jamie’s Thirty Minute Meals said the series “aims to show that anyone can get a delicious feast on the table in less time than it takes for a takeaway pizza to arrive”. (If you think this sounds familiar, then you’ve watched an identical series called Take on the Takeaway. Looks like Jamie hasn’t been quite as pioneering on this occasion.)

The single overriding problem with these quick-and-easy recipe shows is that we are not a nation of trained chefs. Jamie, Ainsley and Gordon might be able to whip up gourmet meals using 27 raw ingredients in half an hour, but I sure as hell can’t. I don’t know how much is too much, or what I should add to make something sweeter/sharper/better. If I’m trying a new recipe, I’ll need a recipe book and a good long time to get my head around instructions and measurements. It’s a sad but true fact that I just can’t cook thatwell, and while Jamie’s 30-minute dinners might inspire me to try something new, I doubt I’ll be up for trying to match his speed and skill in the kitchen. Especially not after a day at work.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Jamie’s relatively simplistic style will have me cooking happily along with him when the series airs this autumn. I’ll leave this with a To be continued…

Gourmet Mexican at Covent Garden’s new Cantina Laredo

July 18, 2010

Mexican food, anitakhartWhen I was invited to sample Covent Garden’s new Mexican restaurant, American-born franchise Cantina Laredo, I made the fatal error of looking up bloggers’ reviews: dry chicken; astronomical prices; dozens of idle waiters enquiring incessantly about your meal…put it this way, I may have been put off.

Things didn’t get much better on arrival. Half 7 on a Friday night, Covent Garden is brimming with people – and Cantina Laredo is near empty. Possibly something to do with its location next to a busy road, my friend suggests. We walk through the door and are greeted by no less than five attentive staff, four of whom are entirely unnecessary although genuinely eager to please. We’re shown to our seat by yet another hostess, who then introduces our waiter for the night. I’d lost count by this point.

But despite some rather overzealous hiring, the staff themselves were attentive without being over the top. Bonus points go to our waiter for taking orders for the starters first and coming back later for mains.

On to the food, and of course we order the £7 guacamole that has so enraged most critics. Okay, so a condiment should never be £7, but it’s a sizeable amount of very good guacamole that, coupled with our other starter, was more than enough for two people. (We kept it on the table to go with our mains, which stretched it a little further.)

The Ceviche was delicious – fresh fish on a bed of lettuce and yet more avocado. The mains were of a high standard too. We both opted for steak, medium rare, which comes with rice and guacomole (they do love their avocado). The addition of sauted carrot, courgette and new potato was tasteless and fairly inappropriate, and my steak was more medium than medium rare. But the meat itself was wonderful – its tender, melt-in-the-mouth texture shut us up for a good few minutes.

I managed to squeeze in a pudding of hot apple pie and ice cream, which for reasons best known to the chef came on a hot skiddle. It was nice enough and left me full to the brim – a good thing considering the size of the bill. The food was good – some of it delicious – and the waiters more than deserved their service charge. But for £85, Cantina Laredo should be offering something special. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was yet another Covent Garden eatery looking to rip people off.

A feast through the ages

July 8, 2010

bompas & parr complete history of foodIf, like me, you salavated throughout Heston Blumenthal’s Feasts series (or at the very least had your interest piqued) then I have some great news. Bompas and Parr, the increasingly ubiquitous jellymongers, are hosting a similar culinary spectacular.  Only this time you can actually eat the food!

The Complete History of Food, presented by Courvoisier with Bompas and Parr, is a somewhat surreal step through the ages, represented by different ‘food eras’. Visitors will wander through a five-floor Georgian townhouse in London’s Belgrave Square, where Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian and contemporary scenes are structured room-by-room.

Top chefs and mixologists have interpreted key periods in food history, offering guests four courses each complemented with a serving of Courvoisier (in cocktail or jelly form) as well as an amuse-bouche, entrée, plat principal and dessert – not bad for £25 a head.

Paul Tvaroh, founder of Lounge Bohemia is teaming up with Michelin-starred chef Alexis Gauthier of Gauthier Soho to offer contemporary gastronomic creations for the starter. The main course comes from pop-up kings Bistrotheque inspired by the 1853 Iguanodon Dinner and expertise from the Grant Museum of Zoology.

How they’ll carry out the flooded dining room and dinner in the belly of a dinosaur is anyone’s guess. But I certainly don’t want to miss it.

Quorn mania as the brand makes its way to Australia

June 9, 2010

Quorn hits AustraliaA while ago I made a mammoth chilli using Quorn mince. I didn’t hate it – quite the opposite. It worked surprisingly well with all those strong flavours, and the texture held its own.

But still – and this may be a little contentious among vegetarians – I am surprised at its popularity. Even that generic phrase “tastes just like chicken” can’t be applied to Quorn, because it doesn’t taste of anything. Put it in a fajita or a chilli and it will absorb all those amazing flavours. But baking a lump of Quorn in the shape of a chicken breast and serving it with chips? No thanks.

This hasn’t stopped Aussies throwing Quorn a nationwide welcome party for its arrival down under. Quorn’s very own Facebook page is peppered with messages like:

Just heard on the 7pm news in Melbourne that Quorn will be in our supermarkets in Australia within the next month!!! My withdrawals after living in London will no longer be!!!!

can not wait till you come to australia!!! been craving ever since i left the u.k- thanks quorn!!!

Perhaps these people represent principled vegetarians who courageously ditched real meat to save lambs and cows and the like. That they are searching high and low for a meat substitute is understandable. But Quorn connoisseurs who scour the world for a factory-bred fungus? The mind  boggles.

A while ago I made a mammoth chilli using Quorn mince. I didn’t hate it – quite the opposite in fact. It worked surprisingly well with all those strong flavours, and the texture held everything together. But still – and this might be a little contentious among vegetarians – I am surprised at its popularity. Even that generic phrase “tastes just like chicken” can’t be applied to Quorn, because it doesn’t taste of anything. Put it in a fajita or a chilli and it will absorb all those amazing flavours. Fantastic. But baking a lump of Quorn in the shape of a chicken breast and serving it with chips? No thanks.

This hasn’t stopped Aussies throwing Quorn a nationwide welcome party for its arrival down under. Quorn’s very own Facebook page is peppered with messages like:

“Just heard on the 7pm news in Melbourne that Quorn will be in our supermarkets in Australia within the next month!!! My withdrawals after living in London will no longer be!!!!”

“can not wait till you come to australia!!! been craving ever since i left the u.k- thanks quorn!!!”

Perhaps these people represent principled vegetarians who courageously ditched real meat to save lambs and cows and the like. That they might search high and low for a meat substitute is quite understandable. But Quorn connoisseurs who scour the world for a factory-bred fungus? The mind truly boggles.