Sunday, 30 October 2011


I know this is akin to swearing in church, but those zeitgeist-y tapas bars get right on my t...ts. Squished in unwelcome intimacy with fellow diners, you are privy to their conversation, too familiar with the shape of their elbows, and you end up playing some version of a Victorian parlour game as you try to spot which dishes are yours and which theirs. OK, the food is nice, but who are they kidding?  They may model their interior on a cool, no-frills Barcelona zinc bar where you drink at leisure, grazing as you go, but in London the frenetic drive for turnover means a visit to, say, Brindisa is as relaxing as colonic irrigation. As soon as you perch your bum on a swivel stool, there is a pressure to order food - and quickly, with staff impervious to the 'I'm just drinking now, so piss off' look. 

So Spuntino - not Spanish but Italian tapas; tucked between Soho sex shops it is easy to miss. Yes, it has a zinc bar, a kind of East Village feel, and hipster staff, but crucially we arrive at an unfashionable 5pm when there is a choice of seats. Admittedly we are asked to order food a nano second after the wine glasses hit the deck, but my 'piss off' look seems to work this time.  When we are ready, we order fried, crunchy olives, spicy sausages with polenta,  pulled pork and apple slider - it is all pretty good. 

So the key to a chilled out experience is to choose your time wisely; or be prepared to order quickly, eat up and bugger off...

Spuntino - 61 Rupert Street, Soho, London, W1D7PW

Thursday, 27 October 2011


"Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have you will remember it.  Some quirk of the Kentish coastline makes Whitstable natives - as they are properly called - the largest and the juciest, the savouriest and yet the subtlest, oysters in the whole of England. Whitstable oysters are, quite rightly, famous."
Sarah Waters Tipping the Velvet.

We are in Whitstable for the first time, and find our way to the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company, an old, redbrick warehouse-style building right on the seafront, with views out across the mudflats that are home to the oysters.
This building has been transformed into a bright, airy seafood restaurant.  Today it is packed, the Autumn sunshine has drawn everyone out for a walk along the coast and a plate of Natives.
We follow tradition, slurping and dribbling our way through half a dozen of Whitstable's finest. They are firm, juicy and sweet/salty, enlivened by the kick of a drop or two of Tabasco.
We follow this with mounds of moules and a selection of sardines.  And chips.  And treacle toffee pudding and ice cream.
Afterwards, we stroll off along the coastal path, to take the air, past grand Victorian villas and brightly coloured beach huts. The pale sun sinks as we walk, then sets over the Essex coast on the far side of the estuary.

Friday, 21 October 2011


the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile

From 'Ode to a Tomato' by Pablo Neruda

Ten days ago, it was 30 degrees, sunny and hot.  The record-breaking Autumn weather brought about an unexpected late rally on the allotment, nowhere more so than the tomato plants.  As well as dark red plums, we have experimented this year with a small, yellow, pear-shaped tomato from Italy. These hang from their plants like little drop earrings, glowing brightly in the sunshine.

This weekend, though, temperatures drop to freezing overnight, so the allotment is full of worried gardeners busily harvesting all their fragile produce; boxes and bags full of not just tomatoes, but lettuces, squashes and pumpkins, the last raspberries.

To make this yellow tomato focaccia, I use the  recipe posted by Bill44 on the Sourdough Companion website.  At the end, after smearing the surface with handfuls of olive oil but before the final rise, I press ripe yellow tomatoes firmly into the dough.  
The tomatoes are placed about 3 inches apart, but next time I will place them closer together. As well as being caramelized and sweet, the tomato juices ooze out across the bread, and mingle with the olive oil and salt.

Sunday, 16 October 2011


Our apple tree is laden this year. Even though we have given away bags of fruit, apples are dominating the house and our diet.  Apple tart, apple crumble, apple juice, blackberry and apple pie - we are picking faster than we can eat.
One of the ways to use up a few more is to make "double apple rye bread", aka bread with both dried apple chunks (for sweet, chewy texture) and grated fresh apple (to create a moist, dense loaf).  Now, it is OK to use any old commercial dried apple for this, but much more satisfying to create your own.
Dried apple is easy to make: it is a great snack or it can be sprinkled over breakfast cereals:
1   peel and core several apples (you can leave the peel on if you prefer, it adds a little more texture) and slice into thumbnail size chunks;
2   drop the apple pieces into a bowl of water into which you have squeezed the juice of a lemon, to stop discolouration;
3   heat the oven to 130C degrees;
4   lightly oil a wire rack;
5   drain and dry the apple chunks and place them on the rack, making sure they do not touch; you can sprinkle them with cinnamon or other spices if you wish;
6   bake in the oven for 30 - 40 mins, or until they are caramel coloured and chewy (the time will vary depending on the size of the apple chunks and their moisture content); switch off the oven but leave the apple chunks in to continue to dry;
7   store in an airtight box in a cool dry place; they should keep for up to two weeks, but they tend to get eaten more quickly than this.

Double apple bread is quite easy too.  Because of the moisture from the grated apple, it takes more flour than you might expect.

150g   rye flour
250g   strong wheat flour
200g   grated apple (including peel but not core)
250g   dried apple
250g   starter (equal flour/water)
125g   water
50g     yoghurt
10g     salt.

Double Apple rye bread with honey
Mix all the ingredients (except the dried apple) together and knead well for 15 minutes; it will be quite sticky at first, but will become smooth and stretchy after kneading.
Leave to stand for an hour, then knead again for a couple of minutes, adding the dried apple.
Place in a well-floured banneton and leave to rise for three hours.
An hour before baking, heat an oven and oven brick to 250 degrees celsius. 10 minutes before baking, place a dish with ice cubes at the bottom of the oven to create steam.
Turn out the loaf onto a baking sheet, slash the surface, and slide onto the baking stone.
Bake for 45 minutes.

The loaf will mature a little over 24 hours and the apple will keep the crumb moist.

Saturday, 8 October 2011


I don't think we ever knew the restaurant's name, just that it was somewhere in Kowloon,Hong Kong, down crowded, narrow, steamy, neon-lit streets: Blade Runner territory.

We had been taken there by locals, regulars who were well known, and so we got the inside story about an extra on the menu - a knuckle of pork that had been simmering for twenty-four hours.  Normally this is only available if ordered long in advance, but a group of diners had cancelled at the last minute.

Did we want it?

The knuckle arrives. My soul shrivels as it wobbles obscenely like a porky blancmange in a pool of pond-dark liquor. The gelatinous fat quivers as we poke it tentatively with chopsticks. The meat needs no more than this gentle prompting to fall apart: it's tender and melting with a sauce  aromatic with star anise, ginger, garlic, fennel and sichuan pepper. I dream about this dish for months afterwards. 

Here is an approximation of that gargantuan feast, with a little help from Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery (read this for a flavour of her wonderful writing about Chinese food). I have reduced the cooking time, but extend it back up to the full 24 hours if you like.

        Stage One Ingredients
1 pork knuckle
150g ginger, cut into four and crushed a little
3 fat cloves garlic, cut in half
300g pickled sour mustard leaves, chopped into matchstick strips (buy this in your nearest Asian food store)
3 dried chillies (seeds can be removed)
3 star anise
6 tbs light soy sauce
6 tbs dark soy sauce
3 tbs black vinegar
9 tbs Shaoxing rice wine
2 tbs black bean and garlic sauce
1 tbs black bean and chilli sauce
2 thick spring onions cut into four inch lengths
        Stage Two Ingredients
50 g dried white back black fungus (rinsed)
        Stage Three Ingredients
3 tsp sichuan peppers (coarsely ground)
3 tsp fennel seeds (coarsely ground)
1   Place the knuckle in a large pan and  add all the other Stage One ingredients, topping up with water so that the knuckle is half covered.  As no one knuckle is the same as another, proportions vary, so adjust according to taste and inclination.
2   Cover the pan, bring the water to the boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Check every 30 minutes, turning the knuckle over. Top up with water if needed.
3   (Stage Two) After four hours, add the rinsed fungus and stir in well. Cover and bring back to the simmer - continue to check every 30 minutes as it continues to cook.
4   (Stage Three) An hour before serving, stir in the ground spices.
5   Keep tasting the sauce during the final hour, and adjust flavours to suit taste.  If too thin, boil down a little.
6   Serve with steamed sticky rice, stir-fried greens.