Sunday, 24 April 2011


"Grantchester! Ah, Grantchester!
There's peace and holy quiet there."
Rupert Brooke
Not today there isn't.  
The combination of sunshine, the long Easter Weekend, and schadenfreude as a result of the rain storms in Spain, the nation's favourite holiday destination, has brought the crowds to the River Cam.  There are people by the river, on the river, even in the river.
And there are just as many in the Orchard Tea Garden when we arrive at ten to three.  At least the German family behind us seem to enjoy queuing for half an hour for tea: "So English" they exclaim.
It is crowded. However, it turns out that Brooke is right: The Orchard works its magic, and, apart from the odd moment of table rage, peace does descend. We settle into our deck chairs, drink our tea and devour our scones, jam and cream.

Grantchester! Ah, Grantchester.

Friday, 22 April 2011


Good Friday demands good sourdough Hot Cross Buns and not those pappy ones from the supermarket.
These buns are based on a recipe by "SourDom" on the ever helpful Sourdough Companion blog:
So we're up at the crack of dawn to take the dough out of the fridge and shape the buns. It is a bright morning heralding the Easter weekend holiday, and the buns are ready for their final rise.
In the afternoon, we return from a walk along the river just in time to slide the buns into the oven and stir together the sugar and water for the glaze when they emerge.  
Four o'clock: buttered hot cross buns and tea in the garden in the sunshine.  
Happy Easter!

Thursday, 21 April 2011


There is a new cafe, Hot Numbers, in Gwydir Street, just off Mill Road in the old Dale Brewery building.  It opened almost a month ago and is already buzzing.
Hot Numbers has a cool 50s' jazz vibe. There's good coffee, paninis and oh yeah ... homemade cake. It's friendly and communal with newspapers, free wi-fi and not a 4x4 buggy in sight - the yummy mummies haven't  discovered it ...yet. 

Sunday, 17 April 2011


Springtime in Paris. The warm sunshine is perfect for aimless strolling, serendipity taking us past (and into) shoe shops, fromageries, and so on. The Ladurée shops are beguiling but  crowded with more than a hint of Disney - after all they are just macaroons laced with food colouring. We leave toute suite.
We join a noisy throng of shoppers inside, getting in the way of busy Parisiennes who are keen to snap up the evening's bread on their way home after work.  After browsing, dithering, breathing in the nutty, yeasty smell, we leave clutching flour and bread, but not a branded cushion fashioned into loaves, hilarious as they are. The chewy, crusty loaf doesn't last long; we sit by the Seine, pulling the bread apart, watching the sunset slip down towards the Eiffel Tower as runners jog and romantic couples stroll past along the river bank. A lone trumpeter plays jazz under one of the bridges, the notes echoing out across the water.

The next morning finds us at Eric Kayser's, also in the Latin Quarter, one of Daniel Leader's gurus when he was researching the skills and techniques in the 1980s that would inform his own baking practice in America.
Although one of the pioneers of the new wave of sourdough bread-makers, an "artisan boulanger", the Kayser shops are modern, as are the bread-making techniques he uses. It is Kayser who developed the use of a liquid levain, easier to control than the traditional "stiff" sourdough starter. The bread is light, crusty and has a slightly more pronounced sourness.

If Kayser's is modern in approach and appearance, Le Moulin de la Vierge (rue Vercingetorix) is the opposite. Basil Kamir had been a rock promoter, whose office was in an old bakery in a run-down area in the south of Paris.  The area was scheduled for re-development and the bulldozers had moved in; the only way to save the building was to return the bakery to its original use.  Basil transformed himself from promoter to baker, drawing a traditional baker, Jean LeFleur, out of retirement to teach him.
We travel to Pernety on the Metro, arriving in a rather soulless, modern neighbourhood.  The bakery is tucked away in a quiet street of featureless, concrete blocks of flats next to a busy railway.  To go inside is to step into the past.
Foxed mirrors are topped by extravagant cornices and the ceiling is a tiled rural scene.  Basil Kamir's bread is traditional, made in the old way and baked in a wood fired oven that is over 150 years old. The baguette we buy and eat (with some powerful cheese from a maitre fromager on the high street) is dense, chewy and delicious. We scan the real estate windows; perhaps we should move to Pernety so that we can feast on this bread every day.

Thursday, 14 April 2011


Staggering from the Eurostar with a quantity of French cheese and a sourdough loaf the size and weight of a well-fed baby we are no way ready, mentally or physically,  to deal with the rigours of the return journey to Cambridge. Rather like returning astronauts needing decompression time we too need a period of assimilation back into Blighty after a Paris trip. 

So with malodorous plastic bags and wheely case in tow we think to belly up to the  'Booking Office Bar' at the spanking new St Pancras Renaissance hotel. Not so easy, my friends. A welter of smart, smilingly efficient staff descend upon us blocking our path: "would sir and madam like to leave your case and the uh plastic bags in the cloakroom?"; "no, I'm afraid there is nowhere to sit just now"; "yes, you can stand at the bar, if you like"; "yes, I'm afraid it is rather busy".  Anywhere else we would have thought, "sod this, let's go to the pub", but the space is beautiful and I do want to have a nosey around the refurb. 

The bar is built around Victorian ticket booths (I'm presuming this is an original feature), the brickwork, soaring ceilings, windows and doors all point to a very sensitive restoration and like all good restorations it has retained the essence of the past. I somehow sense an echo of the hubbub and air of expectation of a busy booking office in the late 1800s in the general hum and excitement that surrounds a new opening.  I trot to the ladies and catch a few glimpses of other public rooms; the hotel is not officially open but it certainly looks stylish, high-spec and gracious. The original Victorian hotel,  apparently, had only 3 bathrooms for about 200 rooms ... ewww... Not so here, I imagine all rooms in this  5-star hotel are en-suited up to the eyeballs. 

On my return to the bar, Geoffrey, the attentive and observant bartender has found us bar stools and some light and sparkling wine along with some crunchy things in a miniature silver pail. There's much attention to detail here, the nod to the past is subtly and tastefully executed, there is no Little Dorrit tea room, Magwitch Mead or naff cocktails named after eminent Victorians. 

Ah well, back to to reality, we board the 8.15 to Cambridge and behold there are at least 3 people eating Mcdonald's, the smell is overpowering and nauseating, but when it comes to olfactory weapons we have nuclear capability. The neck of the plastic bag opens...we unleash the époisses.

See our review of the Gilbert Scott Brasserie, Macus Wareing's new restaurant now open in the St Pancras Hotel complex here:

Saturday, 9 April 2011


Hugh F-W bemoaned, a couple of weeks ago (Guardian Weekend magazine), the lack of sorrel in neighbourhood supermarkets or veg shops.  It is a shame as sorrel is so versatile and distinctive.  Technically, I think, it's a herb, but that shouldn't hold us back: delicate young leaves, unexpectedly sharp and juicy, are great in salads; added to a stew, sorrel adds a velvety thickness as well as enhancing the flavours; it livens up a stir fry in no time at all; and of course, turned into a sauce, sorrel is conventionally served with fish.  
Do not despair at its scarcity, however: sorrel is easy to grow.  Pop some seeds in the ground today and you will be harvesting young leaves in no time at all.  Think a bit about positioning, as your sorrel will never fully die back, and fresh bright green leaves will shoot up again very early next spring, one of the first new vegetables of the year to show.
As you have probably worked out, sorrel is lemony sharp. And I think it is worthy of being the headline act, not just a support band. 

3 large handfuls of sorrel
3 large handfuls of spinach
(1 carrot diced - optional)
(1 leek diced - optional)
600 mls water
1 tsp salt
2 tsps granulated white sugar (or palm sugar)
200 mls tinned coconut milk
1 lime, zest and juice
To serve: single cream and lime quarters.
Serves 2 as a main meal.

The spinach is important to keep the soup green; sorrel goes brown when heated.
Rinse the leaves and place them in a large pan, along with the carrot and leek if using. Add the water and salt.  Bring to the boil and then simmer for a few minutes. Once soft, blitz the soup in a blender.
Pass the soup through a sieve to remove the coarse fibres of the sorrel stalks; be prepared to push the soup through the sieve with the back of a spoon until only a loose paste is left.
Return the soup to a low heat. Add the sugar, tinned coconut milk and the juice of half a lime.  Stir and taste. Adjust the proportions of sugar, lime and coconut to suit. Bring back to simmering point before serving.
Serve with a dollop of single cream and 1 tsp of lime zest, with lime quarters for squeezing onto the soup. 
Accompany with warmed or freshly baked bread - sourdough matches the sharpness of the sorrel extremely well.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


"I know a chef who used to work there. Yeah,  apparently it's gone downhill..." I wish our taxi driver would shut it and confine himself to the usual repertoire: idiosyncrasies of the one-way system/traffic/drunks on a Saturday night etc. It's T's birthday and we are on our way to Restaurant 22 on Chesterton Rd in celebratory mood. Weirdly you don't see much press about this place, but it wasn't easy to book a table on a Friday night - maybe their popularity is such they don't need to market themselves. With that optimistic thought under our belts - along with a few glasses of pre-prandial Champagne - we knock on the front door of a nice looking Victorian terrace. It looks and feels excitingly like a secret supper club as we step through to a cosy, candlelit  dining room with tables arranged in fairly hugger mugger, but not crowded fashion. 

I  certainly feel in a congenial frame of mind (no, that's not a euphemism, and yes, I had necked a quantity of Champagne). While we are mulling over an interesting wine list an amuse bouche of carrot velouté arrives. I really, really wish I could put my critical faculties on hold just for tonight, but sorry to say this dish set the tone for the evening. As those two thugs on Masterchef would say, 'We need big, bold flavours'. They aren't in evidence tonight. A Crab Bread and Butter Pudding starter sounds interesting but tastes less so. Our main courses - rump of lamb and pollock are perfectly ... well, ok I suppose. The chocolate torte is rich and delicious but, honest to God, if they want themselves to be taken seriously and ranked alongside Alimentum, Three Horseshoes et al they need to raise their game. The moral of the story: ignore the ramblings of taxi drivers at your peril...