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Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Rediscovering London's St James - Food, History and Mustard Macarons!

‘Mustard macarons anyone?’ - I hesitate as Mustard Sommelier Harry Lalousis hands me a plate, but not for long.  

Intrigued, I savour the caramel-coloured shells as my palate picks up honey and a hint of sweet Sauternes, two of the many gourmet mustard flavours available I am told – my curiosity is piqued at the myriad possibilities of bringing mustard into my cooking.

For I am at the gorgeous La Maison Maille in Piccadilly Arcade, at a tasting session that will teach me a thing or two about mustard. But more on this eye-opening event later, as the boutique is just the first of many stops on a day spent Christmas shopping and eating my way around the district of St James in Westminster. 

I enjoy the brisk autumnal air as I walk down Jermyn Street, one of my favourite in St James.  Whenever I am here, I feel a sense of occasion, walking along one of the most quintessentially British streets, an address with over 300 years of history. 

The street derives its name from Henry Jermyn, the Earl of St Albans, who in 1661 was granted this plot of Crown land by Charles II to develop a residential neighbourhood in the area then known as St James’ Field. It has been a sought-after address ever since, with some illustrious former residents including Gladstone, Thackeray and Sir Isaac Newton. 

Today, the street is famous for its gentlemen’s tailoring, with shops like Alfred Dunhill, Daks, Hackett and Hawes & Curtis to name just a few. But it is also home to some fantastic specialist food outlets like Fortnum & Mason, Franco’s and Paxton & Whitfield

And it is here, at cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield, that I make another of my stops. This St James institution originated in 1797, gaining its first Royal Warrant to Queen Victoria in 1850, and a few others since then including Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II.

I reckon that what’s good enough for Her Maj is good enough for me, and my visit to the shop did not prove me wrong. I spend a heavenly hour sampling a selection of artisan cheeses made on a small scale at local farms and with minimal mechanization, and for which Paxton & Whitfield is known.

The cheese counter has a mind-boggling array of hard and soft, blue and washed-rind cheeses from the UK and abroad. With over 200 years in the business, the staff have an encyclopaedic knowledge of their produce, and will go out of their way to help find the right cheese for you.

And what a great opportunity to come to a shop like Paxton & Whitfield to discover some unique British cheeses you are not likely to find anywhere else in the country, unless you are a local.

One such cheese is The Goddess from Somerset, made from Guernsey cows milk, the rind washed in Somerset cider. This is utterly delectable, creamy and one of those very special items you may be lucky enough to have on your cheese platter this Christmas.

With my cheese platter now sorted, I head over to Berry Brothers & Rudd on nearby St James Street to find the perfect wine to accompany it.

Founded in 1698, the head office is still in the original building at no.3 St James, which has changed little in over 300 years. Today Berry Brothers & Rudd is a thoroughly modern business with a strong on-line presence.

The store is deceptively large, with a number of floors and private rooms behind the narrow street front. It hosts a huge variety of events, including masterclasses, courses run by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, as well as private and corporate entertainment, lunches, dinners and wine tastings.

I must admit, after 25 years living in London, and having walked past the shop many occasions, this is the first time I have set foot in it. This is because the name Berry Brothers & Rudd always made me think of a stuffy, old-fashioned and expensive wine merchants’ store.

But despite their long heritage supplying wine to the aristocracy, the rich and the famous, they welcome everyone even if they just want to buy one bottle starting from as little as £5. So I am pleased to find friendly and approachable staff who show me around, pointing out some great buys.

One of these is Berry Bros & Rudd’s entry-level Bordeaux, their Good Ordinary Claret (GOC) priced at £9 per bottle, or £19 for a magnum. And if you buy on-line in cases of 12, there are discounts, so that for example GOC retails at £8.10 per bottle, with free delivery on orders over £100.

Another delicious tipple unique to the merchants is the The King’s Ginger, specifically formulated by Berry Bros & Rudd in 1903 for King Edward VII, to revive him after long morning rides on his new-fangled Daimler horseless carriage.

King's Ginger Liqueur at Berry Brothers & Rudd
It is a rich and zesty liqueur, with a blend of spicy dried and raw root ginger, lemon peel, with aromas of sherbet and golden syrup, and a warming, long finish. It also makes a great base for a cocktail, as in The King’s Fizz, with one part of The King’s Ginger to four parts of Champagne or sparkling wine, or The King’s Tonic – one part King’s Ginger to two parts tonic water, lemon and a dash of Angostura Bitters.   

But one of the most fascinating discoveries for me at St James this year is at La Maison Maille in Piccadilly Arcade. How excited can you be over mustard, you may ask. And I’m telling you – a lot! 

Maille is about much more than just mustard, as Harry Lalousis, the Head Mustard Sommelier explains to me – “we propose a new concept of flavoured mustard combinations, and the art of cooking with mustard to further enhance the flavours of base ingredients”.

Well if that mustard macaron is anything to go by, I am totally sold.   

Originally from Dijon, La Maison Maille still makes its base vinegars in Burgundy, and flavours its mustards with a dazzling array of luxury products that make it the mustard of choice for top chefs such as the 2 Michelin-starred Helene Darroze and Bruno Loubet.  

But you don’t need to be a Michelin-starred chef to use Maille mustards. There are many mouthwatering recipe cards available in the shop or on the website, and there is even a Maille cookbook for anyone to try. Who knew that you could use mustard to make salmon sashimi with herb salad and Parmesan using honey and balsamic vinegar Maille mustard, or pan-fried cod steaks with lemon and garlic mustard glaze, or even chocolate fondant for which Maille mustard with honey and whipped cream makes a stunning filling?  

There are currently 38 out of a total of 84 flavours available in the shop in St James, including some lovely combinations like saffron and Isigny crème fraiche, or hazelnut and black chanterelle mushrooms, or coconut and Colombo spices, costing as little as £5.50 per jar. 

Several of their mustards are available fresh from the pump, including Sauternes or Chardonnay mustards, and of these I get to taste and take home the lovely Black Truffle and Chablis mustard.

This combines Provençal winter black truffles with Chablis, which can transform anything from mashed potato or risotto to new heights of deliciousness. I am enjoying it these days over scrambled eggs, or as a posh dipping sauce for my triple-cooked home-made chips.

For foodies the world over, I can’t imagine a better present than one of La Maison Mailles’ mustard gift sets this Christmas, starting from £10. I have my eye on the Discovery Selection Gourmet set of four bottles of luxury mustard for £22.80 (hint hint).   

All this shopping gets me thirsty, so I stroll across to the Swan Bar at the fabulous Maison Assouline on Piccadilly. A luxury French publishing house opened in 1994 by Prosper and Martine Assouline, Maison Assouline today has boutiques all over the world, including this one in London opened in 2014.

Maison Assouline publishes glossy coffee table books on fashion, art, architecture, design and travel, hosts art exhibitions, and houses a number of high-end antiques, artworks and furniture, which are all for sale.

All these beautiful artifacts make a stunning setting for the Swan Bar at Maison Assouline Piccadilly. Here, I recharge my batteries with a couple of cocktails and a platter of delectable canapés.

I love their Rat Pack cocktail, which combines Bourbon, Grand Marnier and Vermouth with a dash of Angostura bitters – it is strong with hints of orange and just a touch of sweetness. All cocktails are priced at £14.50, and are served with a 50ml standard measure of spirit.

The food menu at Maison Assouline offers a small but well thought-out list of dishes, including a very reasonable three-course set lunch menu for £25. I have a platter of bocconcini mozzarella with basil and cherry tomatoes, as well as slices of crispy baguette topped with Tolstoy smoked salmon, foie gras and cranberry, and Iberico ham with fresh figs.  

The Swan Bar at Maison Assouline
As well as the impressive setting on the ground floor where the Swan Bar is situated, there is a more intimate room on the top floor of the building filled with the most stunning sofas, artwork and antiques, which is open to the public to relax and enjoy a few glasses of wine or cocktails in relative privacy.

The top room at Maison Assouline is a hidden gem, and I know of nowhere better in St James for a quiet drink and a catch-up with friends, in the lap of luxury. 

Maison Assouline is one of the many new businesses opening up in St James recently. It is well known that the district is home to businesses that have been in the area for hundreds of years, but in the last couple of years, St James has seen a number of new restaurants, shops and other establishments arriving.

One such place is St James Market. This is a new West End destination created to reinvigorate the area, with seven new restaurants, five retail stores and a specially commissioned public art programme.

Among these are Japanese brasserie Anzu (by Emma Reynolds of Tonkotsu fame), Nordic Aquavit, Danish bakers Ole & Steen Lagkagehuset and Veneta by the Salt Yard Group. And a second branch of Duck & Waffle is rumoured to have taken up one of the last remaining units.

Piccadilly, London
St James Market provides more diverse options to suit varying tastes and budgets, and goes to show that there is much more to the area than what it is primarily known for - royal palaces, members-only gentlemen’s clubs and bespoke tailoring.

Nearby on St James St, Café Murano is another of these new kids on the block. Opened in 2014, this is Angela Hartnett’s offshoot of her Michelin-starred Murano, intended as a more affordable, informal and approachable eatery.

Lunch times are super busy at Café Murano, and it is not surprising – Hartnett’s Northern Italian cooking is reputedly some of the best in the country, and with an excellent value set lunch menu available between 12-3pm for £19 or £23 for 2 and 3 courses respectively, you will be lucky to get one of the coveted tables without a prior reservation. The same menu is also available for dinner as a pre- or post- theatre menu at 5:30-7pm or 10-11pm.

I have a marvelous lunch here kicking off with their signature ‘truffle arancini’ (£4.50) from the cichetti section of the menu – small balls of joy made of risotto rice and truffles, covered in breadcrumbs and deep-fried, they are wonderful.

Truffle Arancini at Cafe Murano
My antipasto is another favourite – ‘vitello tonnato, rocket and Parmesan’ (£12). An interesting Italian dish of thin slices of veal with fresh tuna mayo, this is a combination that may raise eyebrows in the UK, but once you try it, you will be hooked. Hartnett’s version is fresh and beautifully seasoned and as good as some of the best vitello tonnato I had in Italy.

Equally good is the primo of ‘papardelle with venison ragu’ (£11.5) – rich, and with an incredible depth of flavour that only properly made, time-consuming ragu sauces achieve. I make a mental note to order this again on a future visit.

The secondo, or main course, is the ‘halibut, Autumn vegetables and coco beans’ (£25) accompanied by a generous portion of ‘courgette fritti’ (£3.75). It is always such a joy to see halibut on a menu, I love the dense and firm white flesh, and there is no better way to appreciate it than simply pan-fried. This is deceptively simple but marvelous main that really hits the spot.

Satisfied though I am, I cannot resist ordering a slice of Hartnett’s ‘olive oil cake with Pistacchio di Bronte ice cream’ (£7). Pistacchio di Bronte is the Rolls Royce of the pistacchio world – intensely flavoured, fragant and with a vibrant green colour. Pistacchio di Bronte only comes from Sicily and has recently obtained its DOP (2009). This is the first time I have seen it on a UK menu, so if you would like to try it (along with the rest of the excellent menu), I strongly recommend a visit to Café Murano.

Pistacchio di Bronte Ice Cream at Cafe Murano
In addition to the amazing specialist food retailers, restaurants, cafés and bars I managed to fit in to this great day in St James, there is a huge variety of other things to see and do in the area. 

I love soaking up the gorgeous artwork and culture at The Royal Academy of Arts or the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts), being pampered at the ultra-lux spa at the Sofitel, not to mention spending time in the verdant parks of St James or Green Park. I have lived in London for many years but still discover old and new places to visit whenever I am in St James.

As you plan your day out at St James in the run-up to Christmas, I strongly recommend a visit to St James’ informative website for a full list of the retailers, art galleries, restaurants and bars in the area - http://stjameslondon.co.uk/occupiers
Travel Essentials

La Maison Maille
2 Piccadilly Arcade

Paxton & Whitfield
93 Jermyn Street

Berry Bros & Rudd
3 St James’ Street

Maison Assouline
196A Piccadilly 

Café Murano
33 St James’ Street

Friday, 25 November 2016

City of Bath - Giulietta, Roman Baths & the Perfect Dinner, Bed and Breakfast

These days I get out of London to visit the rest of the UK sadly far less often than I would like to, something I decided to put right in the New Year. But recently when the good people at Alfa Romeo offered me the chance to test out their new Alfa Romeo Giulietta to drive anywhere I wished in the country, it was not hard to decide on a trip to the Unesco World Heritage city of Bath.

With stunning Georgian architecture, impressive Roman remains, and of course the natural (and rumoured medicinal) thermal springs that drew in the crowds in days gone by, the city of Bath, or Aquae Sulis as it was known in Roman times, has much to offer in terms of history and things to see.

Bath is also home to the fabulous Gainsborough Bath Spa, a YTL property I have been dying to visit since its opening in 2015. Readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of YTL collection of hotels, which I visited at various locations in Malaysia and Thailand, including Pangkor Laut, the Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur, Cameron Highlands Resort, and The Surin Phuket, reviewed here.

And so one Autumnal afternoon, we packed our bags into the Giulietta and set off for a couple of days in the spa town of Bath.

Where to Stay 

The Gainsborough Bath Spa

Opened in 2015, The Gainsborough Bath Spa is a member of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World collection, and is the first UK property opened by Malaysia's luxury YTL Group.

Situated in the heart of the historic town and just metres away from the main shopping street, the hotel is formed from three interlinking Classical-style buildings that were originally the Royal Bath United Hospital, built in 1826.

The Gainsborough Bath Spa is at the same time steeped in history and unapologetically modern. A painstaking restoration over several years included the creation of 99 bedrooms and suites, a restaurant, cocktail bar and a spa situated in a modern indoor central court which houses 1,300 square metres of natural thermal pools.

The public rooms on the ground floor include a striking sitting room, the Canvas Room, where afternoon tea and drinks are served.

Opposite the restaurant on the ground floor is the cocktail bar – here, mixologists will create bespoke cocktails based on the approach of Bath’s historical apothecaries who developed personal treatments for each patient’s unique physiology.

All the bedrooms and suites combine period details from the hotel's past history as a hospital (note for example that the windows are set high to avoid prying eyes), but with luxurious contemporary touches.

Our room was huge, with incredibly high ceilings, massive windows and gorgeous curtains. The bed was tall, and what a pleasure it was to lie on – the sheets were fresh and taut; I have seldom slept so well.

All the expected 5-star luxuries were provided – for instance the heated marble bathroom floors, the Asprey toiletries and the Nespresso coffee maker were much appreciated. I loved being in our room, it was elegantly designed and a pleasure to return to after a day’s sightseeing.

The Gainsborough Bath Spa has various naturally heated thermal pools, a fully equipped gym, a steam room, sauna and a spa complex, more details on these in What to Do section below.

At the time of our stay, all guests who booked online directly with the hotel were greeted with a complimentary bottle of Billecart Salmon Champagne, and ours was waiting on ice when we arrived in our room.

Breakfast at The Gainsborough Bath Spa was excellent, with a comprehensive menu of teas and coffees, and a buffet of fresh fruit, juices, cereals, croissants and patisserie.

There were various cooked options too, and I could not help but order the full English breakfast on my first morning and followed by the Eggs Benedict on the second, which were beautifully cooked with a runny yolk and a hollandaise sauce with just enough acidity to cut through the creamy butter.

Service at The Gainsborough Bath Spa was personable, with such care and attention that gave us the feeling that we were being looked after - the staff addressed us by name from the moment we walked through the door. This seemed reflective of a philosophy of providing care, treatment and well-being, much more akin to a luxury spa than a hotel, which made for an incredible and memorable stay.

Where to Eat

Dinner at The Gainsborough Restaurant

Head Chef, Daniel Moon, has devised a 6-course tasting menu which has been served since October 2016, and it was this menu, priced at £60 per person, which we opted for.

The dining room is elegant, with butterscotch coloured leather seats, parquet floors and high ceilings. There is a central refrigerated wine cellar with glass doors front and back, and the walls are adorned with artwork by graduates from the nearby Bath School of Art and Design.

Our meal started with a smoked ballotine of Var salmon (a top quality farmed salmon from Faroe Island), with horseradish potato mousseline, apple and fennel. Dramatically served with aromatic wood smoke inside a glass dome, the salmon was indeed excellent, and well partnered with the acidity and crunch provided by the raw apple.

The chicken liver parfait was unctuously creamy, lifted by the accompanying lightly tart rhubarb sorbet, sorrel and almond granola.

Better still was the wild mushroom risotto. A brilliantly conceived dish with girolle mushrooms, parsley puree, shavings of pickled cauliflower as well as cauliflower veloute, and whole cloves of sweet caramelised garlic, all topped with a poached quail's egg and Parmesan crackling – heavenly.

To accompany our starters we chose a few wines by the glass from the house list, starting with a Sauvignon Blanc, Chateau de la Roche, from the Loire (£25 per bottle). This had ripe green fruit and citrus aromas, with a delicate finish. 

As a fish course, we had a meaty salted scallop, with king prawn, tomato water, yuzu puree, 'caviar', and pickled radish. I particularly enjoyed the caviar, made from spherified yuzu juice.  A technically highly accomplished dish, I enjoyed the freshness of it and the different layers of flavour and texture, a highlight of our dinner.

With our fish main, we opted for the Picpoul de Pinet, from La Cote Flamenc 2014, Languedoc-Rousillon (£23 per bottle) a medium-bodied dry white wine, with citrus and tropical fruits, and a fresh clean finish. 

The main course was roast Creedy Carver duck, served with a confit duck leg spring roll, bok choi, mooli, plum, and black and white sesame seeds.  The restaurant is known for its eclectic flavour combinations, and this was a really thought-provoking elision of East and West.

We also ordered a couple of glasses of red wine – the Tempranillo Garnacha, Gran Ducay Gran Reserva 2007, Carinena, Spain (£24 per bottle) had aromas and flavours of ripe blackberry fruits and vanilla, with well integrated tannins and a long finish. While the Malbec de Hospitalet 2014, Languedoc, France (£26 per bottle) had a powerful nose of blackcurrant and spice, with a long and complex finish.  

Dessert was just as good as the preceding dishes - with a glossy Valhrona chocolate dome, cleverly concealing an interior filled with different flavours, textures and even temperatures ranging from hot to frozen, this ended our meal on a very high note.

Daniel Moon is, judging by our dinner, a highly talented, creative and technically accomplished chef. His 6-course tasting menu at £60 per person represents outstandingly good value for money and warrants a visit to The Gainsborough Bath Spa on its own right. It makes for a perfect dinner, bed and breakfast get away from London, I would say!

What to Do

The Gainsborough Bath Spa has the exclusive privilege of having access to one of the City’s natural hot springs, the Hetling Spring, that supplies mineral rich, naturally heated water to the hotel’s thermal pools.

The Bath House experience at The Gainsborough Bath Spa is complimentary for guests, and enables them to 'take the waters' in luxury. We took a self-guided circuit that included dipping in two natural pools of varying temperatures, then a traditional or and infrared sauna, a steam room, an ice alcove and elegant relaxation areas.

To finish, there is a wonderful soak in a large pool bathed in natural light from the four-storey glass atrium. Although it looks timeless and serene, there are some nifty gadgets concealed within the pool that allow guests to turn on powerful jets of water for a neck, shoulder or back massage in the thermal waters. 

Unsurprisingly given its Asian origins, the YTL group hotel also offers a selection of relaxing massages and treatments.  I tried their 90-minute Ginger Renewal treatment, which was utterly blissful and energising.

Beyond the hotel, there is easily enough to fill a few days of wandering and exploring. In the city of Bath itself, the Roman Bath, where I spent a couple of hours learning all about the city’s fascinating Roman history, the Bath Abbey, the Assembly and Pump Rooms are all worth a visit.

During the Georgian period, Bath saw the construction of a series of elegant terraces hugging the contours of the surrounding hills, interspersed with parks and gardens, known as the famous Crescents of Bath.

Today, the upper town of Bath has a number of these terraced Crescents in perfect condition dating from this period, and at the very least, visitors should have a look at Queen Square, the Parades, the Circus and the Crescent.

Number One, The Royal Crescent was the first house built in the world-famous Royal Crescent between 1776 and 1796.

This fascinating house has been restored back to how it was when it was newly constructed.

The free tour there gives a fascinating glimpse of life in those days, both from the perspective of the wealthy owners and the poor servants (the kitchen was the most interesting room in the house, no doubt) who kept the place running at a time long before modern appliances and conveniences.

The surrounding countryside is also full of interest, with the gorgeous villages of the Cotswolds, as well as Longleat House, the stately home and seat of the Marquess of Bath.

Roman relic found in Bath, the Roman town of Aquae Sulis

Travel Essentials 

The Gainsborough Bath Spa
Beau Street

Rooms cost from £215 per night, not including breakfast. There is a range of special offers on the website including dinner bed and breakfast options available from Sunday to Thursday, and four nights for price of three.  

From London, the easiest way to arrive at Bath is by taking one of the frequent First Great Western trains from Paddington. They travel direct to Bath Spa, taking around 80 minutes. 

The hotel offers a pre-bookable shuttle service from Bath Spa train station to the hotel, at a cost of £10 per journey. 

One Royal Crescent

Thanks to Alfa Romeo for loaning me a lovely Giulietta for my trip to Bath. For more information on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, visit their website here.

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