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Sunday 31 August 2014

Fête Accompli - Portman Village Bakes up a Storm

Words & Photography by Felicity Spector

Talk about a dream assignment. Would I like to judge a baking competition, alongside Great British Bake Off winner Frances Quinn, involving head chefs from some of London's top restaurants and hotels? I couldn't book the day off work fast enough.

It was all hosted by Portman Village, the not-quite Marylebone, not-quite Marble Arch part of central London just behind Selfridges. Local businesses have been holding a street party every summer, and given the nation's current love affair with cake, they decided this year's would kick off with their very own local Bake Off.

It was a blazing hot day and Portman Square was decked out like a proper village fete: there was bunting. There were tea urns. And - glory be - a large white marquee with trestle tables laden with cakes and desserts.

A quick rendevouz with Frances and the organisers to determine the rules:  and we were off, starting with best 'Native dessert'. We tucked into a gigantic lemon ice-box pie from The Lockhart, a dream of a dessert with an impeccably crunchy ginger biscuit base, glorious lemon curd and a vast pile of mallowy meringue. It was difficult not to just stop right there and finish the entire thing - but we had 35 more entries to go, and it seemed judicious to pace ourselves.

I was particularly taken with a moist, nutty banana bread from Daisy Green - and there was a  spicy ginger molasses loaf from Lanes of London which also scored well. A cheesecake beautifully decorated with berries was another favourite - surviving surprisingly well in the blazing heat - although we did deduct a few marks for the soggy bottom. Harsh - but fair.

On we went. The 'Tastiest Cake' category beckoned - and there was one outstanding winner for all of us - The Grazing Goat's dark, rich flourless chocolate cakes topped with a perfect quenelle of almond-butter mousse: think peanut butter taken to the next level.

We went back for more, just to make sure they really were that good. Daisy Green's 'Mega banana bread' made a reappearance, this time stuffed with copious amounts of whipped cream and strawberries. Mega was the word.

By this stage, the cookie category seemed like light relief. Some strawberry shortcake cookies from Lanes of London scored well for the buttery, short biscuits, but were let down by a too-sweet strawberry filling.

Top marks went to the Grazing Goat again, for some utterly perfect chocolate chip cookies: melting chocolate, soft centre, crisp around the edge. Exemplary.

The contest wasn't just open to chefs: some local businesses had also got involved - and we had especially high praise for Zora Govorusa from Zoki Couture for her crumbly pecan-based cookies - along with some attractive looking creations in the best Decorated Cake category.

By the end we were all surfing on a massive sugar high and a large queue of punters were impatiently lining up, waiting to be allowed into the tent to try the entries for themselves, once we'd awarded the prizes. Frances and I may have sneaked back for another spoonful of the chocolate cake - before announcing the winners. The Lockhart for their lemon icebox pie, and the Grazing Goat for their cookies and their flourless chocolate cakes.

By this time the square was full of the happy buzz of families enjoying the other activities, from a 'pin the beard on Paul Hollywood' game to stalls raising money for a local homeless charity, the West London Day Centre. Local restaurants and cafes were staying open late into the night, offering special menus, cocktails, special discounts and live music.

Reluctantly, though, we had to leave: Frances and I were due at another event involving - yes - more cake. But what an afternoon we had: I'm already looking forward to another Portman Village Bake Off next year.

Friday 29 August 2014

Michelin Accomplished - Martin Berasategui Revisited

Where:  Loidi Kalea, 4 - 20160 Lasarte-Oria (Gipuzkoa). San Sebastian, Spain, http://www.martinberasategui.com

Cost: The 12-course Grand Tasting Menu was priced at €195 per person (not including wines).

About: Martin Berasategui is the chef at his eponymous restaurant which opened in 1993, and has held three Michelin stars since 2001. Martin Berasategui was reviewed for this site in 2012 by one of our contributors (see review here), and having read it, I could not wait to pay it a visit in person.

Berasategui has nearly 40 years experience in the industry, having trained at cookery school in France in 1977, he worked over the next four years in several prestigious kitchens, including those of Michel Guerard and Alain Ducasse in Monaco. In 1981 he took charge of his family restaurant, el Bodegon Alejandro, earning its first Michelin star in 1986.

Paying my respects to the man himself - Martin Berasategui at the end of service

The restaurant occupies a large building in a quiet suburb 20 minutes drive from the Old Town of San Sebastian. Surrounded by lush green grass and shrubs, the dining room is situated on the raised ground floor. It has an elegant and sober decor, with a tiled stone floor and widely spaced tables, each covered with a starched white linen tablecloth.

Views of Martin Berasategui's restaurant grounds
On each table was a large bowl of tall white orchids, and there was no music to distract from anything else but the food.  Service was discreet and very efficient, all the waiters dressed in black suits and speaking perfect English.  It was truly impressive that our waiter (Wander, from the Dominican Republic) noticed that I am left-handed and without prompting, reorganised my cutlery and glasses throughout the duration of the meal.

What We Ate and Drank: We opted for the 12 course Grand Tasting Menu, comprising 10 savoury items and 2 desserts. Each dish is described on the menu with the date of its first creation, giving an idea of the evolution of Berasategui's culinary style and inspirations from 1993 to the present day.

We also decided to have the 100% Spanish matched wine flight.  This started with a classic Cava - Subirats Parnet Brut Nature – crisp, with refreshing acidity, this was a really good palate refresher, and an ideal start to our lunch.

The tasting menu during our visit started with "1995 Mille-Feuille of Smoked Eel, Foie-Gras, Spring Onions and Green Apple". This was exquisite, with very fine layers including crisp caramel and microns-thick slices of bright, crisp and vibrantly green apples to contrast with the unctuous foie-gras and eel.

Next was "2001 Squid Soup" - creamy squid ink ravioli served with squid crouton.  The raviolo must be eaten whole, because it "explodes" in the mouth! This was an intensely rich and clear lobster consommé, with a ravioli filled with squid ink, and a crispy wafer of rice and squid ink that brought another layer of texture to the dish.

To follow, we had "2011 Oyster with Cucumber, Kafir and Coconut". This had the addition of chlorophyll extract for a vivid green colour. Two plump poached oysters were perched on a cucmber and oyster jelly, with a flavoursome coconut cream infused with kafir lime leaf, and a judicious scattering of shiso leaf. Magnificent.

With the oyster, we had Picarana 2011, made near Madrid from the rare Albillo grape. This grape is only used in the Madrid D.O., and this example came from 60 year old vines. It had intense stone-fruit flavours, richness and minerality, and great length.

With the following two starters, we had the Trio Infernal 2011 – a delicious blend of Garnacha Blanca and Macabeu from Priorat.

The "2013 Sautéed Black Garlic with Beet Ceviche, Ice Radish and Raifort Cream" had mounds of purple beetroot foam, set over a puree of black garlic, with horseradish cream. This was visually stunning, and delicious with earthy notes from the beetroot and black garlic, lifted by the light acidity and heat of the raifort (horseradish) cream.

The "2009 Little Pearls of Raw Fennel, Risotto and Emulsion" was a clever dish, with fennel served three ways. Fennel in tiny pearls as a risotto, finely sliced for pasta, and in an intense emulsion.

Next was the "2013 Roast Foie Gras with Seaweed”. Resting on horseradish curd, with a fermented soy broth and hazelnut salt, this resembled an intense Japanese dashi stock, spiked with a hint of ginger. It was one of my favourite dishes.

With the foie gras, we had a glass of El Rocallis 2008, made from the rare Incrozzio Manzoni grape in Penedes.

To follow, we had the "2011 Gorrotxategi Egg Resting on a Herb Liquid Salad and Dewlap Carpaccio". This paired creamy egg yolk with paper thin pork chin, and a jade green herb liquid salad - stunning both to the eye and palate.

With the Garrotxatgei, we had a glass of Pagos de Galir Crianza 2009, made from 100% Mancia - a Pinot Noir like grape from Galicia. This had intense damson-fruit characteristics, and a herbaceous nose that stood up well to the creamy egg and pork.

Next came the "2001 Warm Vegetable Hearts Salad with Seafood, Cream of Lettuce and Iodized Juice". Almost too beautiful to eat, this was like a work of art. Myriad vegetables, baby leaves, herbs and flowers of many colours were served with lobster, prawns and scallops, over an intensely flavoured, colourless tomato jelly.

The "2013 Red Mullet with Edible Scale Crystals, Soybean Sprouts, Wheat Semolina and Cuttlefish” was also a delicious dish, with varied textures and flavours that was skilfully partnered with a glass of Quinta Quietud 2005 from Toro.

Made from Tinta de Toro, this had an intense red-cherry quality on the nose and palate, with well integrated tannin and great length.  I spent a week sampling the wines of Toro over ten years ago, and judging by this wine, they have made huge improvements since then. It was an unusual but inspired choice for fish, but complemented the savoury notes of the cuttlefish very nicely, without overpowering the red mullet.

For our main course, we had the 2013 Pigeon with Mushrooms, Caperberries, Manchego Cheese and Asparagus. The ballotine of pigeon was meltingly tender, with just a hint of gaminess contrasting with the crunchy asparagus and caperberries, in a rich jus.

The first dessert was  a very refreshing "2013 Blood-Orange Ice Cream and Slush over Liquified Tubers, Muscovado Sugar Jelly, Yogurt and Pepper", partnered with a glass of Casta Diva 2009 from Alicante, made from 100% Moscatel, which worked well with the ice cream.

The second dessert and last course was a more robust "2013 Mist of Coffee and Cacao over Banana with Whisky Sorbet and Slush". This had some of my favourite flavours – coffee, chocolate and banana, and was my preferred dessert. With it, we had a glass of sweet red Olivares Dulce  2010 from Jumilla, made from the Monstrell grape.

Likes: The food is outstanding in skill of execution, presentation and flavour. An elegant and beautiful restaurant and gardens with the most impeccable service. The 100% Spanish wine flight was also exceptionally good.

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: Martin Berasategui’s grand tasting menu was one of the most memorable meals of my life. This is an outstanding restaurant near the beautiful seaside town of San Sebastian. With superb service, setting, food and wine, it is in my opinion one of the best Michelin starred restaurants in the world, and worth a trip to Spain in its own right. Very highly recommended.

Friday 22 August 2014

Roll out the tinsel! Christmas 2014 is looking delicious - and here's why

Words & Photography by Felicity Spector

Outside it was a blazing 25°C and London resembled a furnace on overdrive. What better day to sample an entire range of Christmas goodies from some of the country’s biggest supermarkets and brands? The fake snow was swirling, the cardboard reindeer were sporting painted-on smiles, and I was game for anything.

First, Marks and Spencer - a vast array of rooms showcasing everything from stunning winter coats to festive homeware and food. I began with the café range, and a huge selection of different Christmas sandwiches - secretly my favourite part of the season.

Alongside the traditional turkey sarnies was a protein-packed three bird roast in a flatbread wrap - and an excellent vegetarian sandwich, pairing roasted carrot with chestnut stuffing and cranberry sauce: it was satisfying, creamy and full of flavour. Another innovation - red crisps, although I have to say they did taste the same as the regular kind.

For the main event - along with some handy pre-prepared vegetable sides, M&S is offering a range of turkeys, from a ready-stuffed and rolled breast joint to a free-range bronze from an Oxfordshire farm, and even a goose. There are some spectacular pies, too - including one with a whole pear in the centre, which looked very dramatic cut in half.

I was most impressed with the selection of breads and desserts: especially a Christmas pudding boule which tasted delicious as it was, or toasted with a decadent amount of butter - a dense, dark and rustic loaf packed with dried fruits and a hint of spice. I’ll be making some rather special turkey sandwiches with that one.

From a luscious range of desserts, I loved the mini Portuguese custard tarts, crisped up after a few minutes in the oven, a very rich and moist chocolate stollen and the ‘hero’ piece: a cone-shaped chocolate brownie fudge cake with praline frosting, complete with ‘five gold rings’ made from spray-painted chocolate. As rich as it sounds, it will retail for £18.

Onto Waitrose, which was promoting the very current Middle Eastern/Asian trends: pairing turkey with dukkah and pomegranate molasses, and some dense and fruity stuffing balls fragrant with gingerbread and apricot. Sprouts were shredded and stir-fried with tiny shards of bacon, and roasted root vegetables were spiced up with an Indian inspired blend of seeds.

Chefs from the store were busy smoking huge turkey breasts in a Green Egg smoker, which made it beautifully moist with a good depth of flavour, paired with a scoop of smoked mash and some buttery gravy.

The Heston range was given a room of its own: highlights were a very rich sticky toffee apple pudding and, best of all, a new frozen dessert called the ‘Ultimate chocolate bar’ - many layers of chocolate, praline and caramel parfait, sandwiched by thin layers of chocolate cake and a shiny smooth chocolate glaze. I predict that one, at £9.99, will be flying off the shelves.

Of the other cakes and desserts, some new square shaped mince pies were an interesting take, with brown-sugar crusted walnuts on top, and the mincemeat mixed with apple to lighten it up. Waitrose pastry chef Will Torrent fried up some mincemeat hotcakes, a great idea for using up leftovers, especially served with some spiced sugar and a huge dollop of one of the store’s alcohol-laced creams.

Over at Asda, where food and drink was displayed in giant igloos, there was a really retro feel to the sweets and biscuits: children will love the giant gingerbread men, and the store has been careful to keep an eye out for cost-conscious customers - their layered chocolate cake, which serves 16, will be on sale for a price-conscious £4. I queued up for one of their most exciting new innovations - a 3D model of myself - the team is taking its special scanner to selected stores around the country and for £60, you’ll be sent a ceramic replica which looks uncannily lifelike. I heard the girl in front of me ask “Can it make me thin?” No promises there: it’s not magic!

The Co-Op, trying hard to rediscover its traditional values after a slightly rocky time - to say the least - has clearly put lots of thought into its Christmas collection. I was really impressed by a platter of six enormous scallops, ready to be seared and finished with garlic butter - they’ll be on sale for just £5, although they are flown in from Japan. Sustainably sourced, though.

The Co-op has also put together some decent festive sandwiches, and a decadent range of desserts including a Christmas pudding cheesecake studded with spices and dried fruit, with a base made of pudding rather than biscuit, which was a novel touch.

And there was a magnificently melting whole camembert, ready to be baked in its box, topped with pancetta and cranberries - all of it just £3.

At the more luxury end of the scale, Fortnum & Mason showed off a magical display of beautifully designed packaging and perfectly composed hampers: there were magnificent pies, bejeweled chutneys, and luxury chocolates. For the ultimate tree decorations, you can pick up an embroidered Big Ben or a London taxi.

Cheese specialists Paxton and Whitfield will also make up hampers to order, from £48 - and other gift ideas include a cheese-making kit and a little notebook where you can record your favourite cheese experiences.

We sampled a wonderful range of British and European cheeses - from an incredibly creamy Italian three milk cheese called La Tur, to St Egwin - nutty and clean tasting, and made on a farm in the Vale of Evesham. You can complete your cheese board with some of their seeded or charcoal crackers and some robust ale chutney or cucumber pickle.

There have to be chocolates, of course - and for the most spectacular creation you could hope to find - La Maison du Chocolat has constructed a vast and intricate Christmas tree: at £700, it’s certainly a work of art in its own right. If your budget doesn’t quite extend that far, then their festive range of chocolates won’t disappoint: a mandarin puree was sharp, intense and smooth as velvet, while a hazelnut praline studded with dates paired the dark chocolate couverture with a fudgy sweetness.

It’s a competitive market out there - and the big stores and brands will be going all out to impress, whether it’s by dreaming up new versions of traditional favourites, or providing the best possible quality and value for money they can. All of which is good news for consumers. And after my whirlwind preview, I'm dreaming of a bright Christmas - as far as the food goes, at least.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Fera at Claridge's & Simon Rogan's Epic Tasting Menu

Words & Photography by Greg Klerkx and Luiz Hara

Most days of the week, lunch can be satisfied with a decent set menu and a nice glass of wine…perhaps a bottle, if it’s been that sort of week. Then there are other days: when you’ve landed a big project, when a long-lost friend is in town, when the sun is shining just so. On those days, when you’ll want something special, Fera at Claridge’s makes a very strong case.

Fera, under executive chef Simon Rogan, takes over the space formerly ruled by Gordon Ramsey at Claridge’s: the dining room, though extensively renovated, retains many of that once-lauded restaurant’s grand Art Deco fittings. Yet Fera is somewhat softer, more inviting: less intent on slapping you about with greatness, real or perceived. The food reflects the environs: understated yet complex, elegant yet playful…though less rugby scrum than a summery game of boules.

We opted for the full tasting menu (£105 + £95 wine flight) though Fera also offers a more modest three-course lunch for £35, sans wine, and an a la carte menu with starters ranging from £16-23 and mains from £24-38 (as of late August…the menu changes frequently depending on season and produce.) Whichever menu you choose benefits from Fera’s micro-universe of growers and suppliers, including a 12-acre smallholding owned and managed by Rogan. The result is a consistent note of freshness and care at Fera: despite the regal surroundings, one gets the sense of dining in someone’s very grand personal home, with all of the personal touches one might expect.

The full tasting menu we had consisted of six snacks and eight courses. Our menu was accompanied by a traditional yet well-judged wine flight, mostly Old World, all gentle and elegant in keeping with the tasting menu. A la carte, Fera’s wine ranges from about £8-26 per glass; prices start at £29 per bottle but average around £50, quickly going up into the three and four figures from there.

Our meal opened with a lovely glass of Bugey Montagnieu (Franck Peillot, Savoie), a sparkling wine with no added sugar, giving it a dry, almost tangy minerality. This was a fine accompaniment to our first snack, Puffed barley, smoked eel, ox-eye daisy, which looked very like something you’d pick up off the forest floor – woody and gnarled-looking, but light, crispy and smokily delicious.

Stewed rabbit with lovage cream was an earthy delight, the rabbit encased in tiny balls of lightly fried tapioca, the effect being the crispiest and gentlest of rabbit croquettes. Squid, alexander and ling roe featured tender, slightly macerated pieces of squid sandwiched between feather-light crisps of ling roe: a quick, fresh explosion of the sea.

By this point we had moved, wine-wise, to a delicately honeyed Muscadet ‘Fief du Breil’ (La Louvetrie, Loire Valley, 2011) that paced the increasing depth and complexity of the menu.

The squid snack was followed by perfectly judged Scallops and peas in buttermilk served in the shell, then the arguable star of the snack flight: a mousse of savoury Winslade cheese and potato in which sat a tiny, flavourful morsel of duck heart, deliciously rich.

The final snack – Crab, rhubarb, verbena and pork fat – was a lovely bridge between the sturm und drang of the duck heart and the first of the main tasting courses, Aynsome soup, mustard cream, soft herbs and flowers.

Cornish lobster, pickled golden beetroot, dittander and sea herbs was well paired with an unusual wine – Etna ‘Vinujancu’ (Vigneri, Sicily 2011): grown from black soil vines at the foot of Mount Etna, the smoky, almost charcoal notes of this unfiltered delight came alive against the meaty richness of the generous chunks of lobster in this course.

Surprisingly savoury was a grilled salad course: salad crisped over embers with sunflower seeds and a truffle custard, served in a beautiful, hand-carved wooden bowl and tossed to taste via a small spade and fork, also hand-carved. We shifted to reds here, beginning with Valtellina ‘Carteria’ (Sandro Fay, Lombardy 2010), made from 100% Nebbiolo, which was a firm, licoricy accompaniment.

A highlight was Hake in caramelised cabbage, potatoes in chicken fat with nasturtium: beautifully presented, the title of the dish neglects the absolutely delicious crisped chicken skin that added crunch to the firm, moist hake.

The mains concluded with Dry-aged Herdwick hogget, beetroots and watercress, the hogget aged for 21 days and served with a sundried beetroot jus that was absolutely wonderful. A marvellously thick, brambly Maule Valley Carmenere (Clos Ouvert, Chile 2011) was a perfect wine pairing and brought out the depth of the meat.

A trio of desserts finished our meal. Pineapple weed ice cream with butterscotch and celery retained strong notes of all three signature ingredients and made for a surprisingly delicate, and delicious, combination.

Less successful was Hereford strawberries with meadowsweet and linseeds: not a miss, just not a stand-out, the whole being so subtle as to practically disappear in the mouth. Sheep’s yoghurt, milk flakes, black cherries, Douglas fir – was held together solely by the last ingredient, which lifted what otherwise might have been another slightly underwhelming dessert.

The desserts were matched with two lovely wines – indeed, head sommelier Riccardo Marcon didn’t hit an off note with any pairing. The Arbois ‘Fleur de Savagnin’ (Domaine de la Tournelle, France 2011), was golden, light and florally lovely; the Jurancon ‘Marie Kattalin’ (Domain de Souch, France 2011) was buttery and ever so slightly savoury, which worked surprisingly well with the black cherry dessert.

As mentioned earlier, Fera’s menu changes with seasons and produce so your menu will almost certainly be different than ours. But given the quality of ingredients and the exceptional skill in their preparation (and the understated yet consistently attentive service) you can be assured that your special lunch, or dinner, will be well worth it.

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