Tuesday 20 August 2019


Main Street, San Miguel Escobar, Guatemala

We learn about Maria from de la gente, a co-operative project set up to help small independent coffee growers by giving them agricultural and business support. DLG is based in San Miguel Escobar, near Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala in Central America. The village is surrounded by volcanoes and the small coffee farms which stretch up their scrabbly slopes. It is also where Maria lives.

The view from Maria's kitchen: looking out to her courtyard with coffee beans
drying on the concrete floor, and up to the volcano behind
Maria's family are coffee growers. She and her daughters have a sideline in hairdressing, and they also run cookery demonstrations of the national dish, pepián. Maria expects her guests to take an active part in every stage before eating at the family's communal table.

Pepián as served at La Casa de las Sopas in Antigua, Guatemala
Pepián is an apparently simple affair, straddling the line between soup and stew. It makes the most of often scarce resources, containing everything needed for a large, family-style meal, the equivalent of our roast chicken and all-the-trimmings Sunday special. Maria takes us through the traditional methods of making pepián, from start (chicken scratching in the yard) to finish (plate on at the table).
First catch your chicken. then....
Much of the cooking takes place on a comal, the flat earthenware plate that acts as a griddle over an open fire. It dates back to ancient times, and is used for roasting all manner of ingredients, including coffee and cacao beans. Families use a range of comals of different sizes and thicknesses, depending on exactly what is being cooked. This provides a surprising range of variety and sophistication in experienced hands such as Maria's. Alongside this, there are more familiar large saucepans for boiling and stewing, and earthenware pots that simmer gently beside the cooking fire, and even some more modern accessories.
The comal is ready to cook.

The following recipe is not a absolutely accurate replication of the ways in which Maria prepared our pepián, but it should lead to a reasonably authentic result. In any case, every Guatemalteco family has its own spin on the best pepián recipe. This one assumes the chicken is bought ready prepared from a shop, rather than picked up in the yard, dispatched, plucked and gutted.

Stage one: prepare your chicken!
(Approximate measures are used here, as Maria judges everything by eye and touch)

1 chicken, jointed
2 onions (quartered)
2 onions (roughly chopped)
2 tbsp salt
2 dried guaque chillies, seeds removed 
2 dried pasa chillies, seeds removed 
(Mexican specialists stock guajillo and poblano chillies, a close equivalent)
120g pumpkin seeds
100g sesame seeds
1 head of garlic
1 bunch coriander (keep a few leaves aside for garnish)
500g ripe tomatoes, around 500g
250g tomatillos (ideally fresh, but tinned will do, in which case forego the roasting stage))
1 tbsp oregano
1⁄2 cinnamon stick
1 chayote (available in most Asian shops)
3 medium potatoes, peeled.

Dry frying chillies. tomatoes and tomatillos
1   Cover the chicken with water in a large saucepan and bring it to the boil. Add salt and the two quartered onions, before reducing to a simmer for an hour.

2   Meanwhile, place a large bowl near the cooker and heat a heavy-bottomed frying pan. Prepare the remaining  ingredients as follows and put them into the bowl:
      dry-fry the dried chillies until their aromas are released, then crumble into the
      dry-fry the tomatoes and tomatillos (if using fresh) and add to the bowl;
      dry-fry the pumpkin seeds until golden brown and add to the bowl;
      dry-fry the sesame seeds until golden and add to the bowl;
      dry-fry the chopped onions, coriander and garlic cloves, and add to the bowl;
      dry-fry the oregano and cinnamon stick until fragrant and add to the bowl.

3   Add 500ml water to the bowl of dry-fried ingredients and then blend until smooth. In Guatemala, the ingredients are ground down using a metate (a bit like a pestle and mortar made out of harsh volcanic stone - see picture below). Maria used an electric blender in addition to her metate to save time and give the ground mixture a finer texture (though we suspect that she might not do so for family and friends who prefer a less smooth sauce).

Grinding the dry-fried ingredients on volcanic stone

4   Cut the peeled potatoes into large chunks; peel and slice the chayote into thick segments; cut the remaining onion into chunks. These will be added to the chicken pot once chicken is mostly cooked.

5   Add the sauce mixture to the chicken pot. Continue cooking at a rolling boil until the sauce reduces: it is typically slightly thicker than a normal soup. Then add the vegetables and cook until tender. This dish can be served in a bowl as a stand alone meal or with rice. Guatemalteco style, it would be served with rice, tortillas, a segment of lime and slices of avocado.

Maria's table is covered in Guatamalteco textiles,
and the corn tortillas are also wrapped in a bundle
to keep them warm and pliable. 

Thursday 4 August 2016


Starting out: fruit, water, honey
The gut biome and its importance for our wellbeing are only dimly understood, but a recent investigation into the intestines of huntsmen from east Africa has made researchers understand a bit more about digestive health. Compared to the average westerner, the east African hunters have a richer and more varied population of gut flora and fauna - known as 'healthy bacteria' - and have little incidence of conditions common in the West, such as IBS or ME. Health professionals are now thinking that the nature of our individual gut biome fundamentally affects our health. So how can average Westerners, brought up on a diet of processed food, enhance the health of their gut? The answer may lie in fermented food: rich in lactobacilli.
Kvass is an ancient Slavic-Baltic drink made from fermented sourdough bread which morphed into beet-kvass in Russia and the Ukraine, a dense and strong-flavoured traditional drink that remains very popular across Eastern Europe.
However, a lightly effervescent, summery, fruit kvass is quick and easy to make, just using ripe fruit, water and honey. Highly flexible, it can use any fruit you have to hand, even frozen or dried. Like all lacto-fermented products, kvass is as good for you as it tastes. The alcohol content is negligible, but add gin or vodka to make a cocktail if you want to go that way (try it with this and a bit of soda).
What goes into a fruit kvass? Strawberries, raspberries and peaches are all good, either on their own or mixed; so too are mangoes, pears, blueberries. Throw in some grated ginger, a curl or two of lemon peel, or some star anise. With autumn not too far away, blackberry and apple is looking good. 

After 12 hours, the bubbles are beginning to rise

- roughly chop 2 peaches and 6 strawberries (or equivalent);
- place in a 2 litre container;
- add a spoonful of unpasteurised honey; 
- top up with natural spring water and cover. 
You can add a kick-starter of a tablespoon of whey (the colourless liquid strained from live yoghurt), a splash of your previous kvass brew, or even a piece of sourdough bread. However, it works very well with just the honey.
Leave the jar in a shady, warm place, stirring every six hours.
Depending on the temperature, it will begin to bubble after twelve hours, and usually takes 2 to 3 days fermentation to be ready. The longer you leave it, the more sour the flavour becomes, so keep tasting. When ready, decant into clean bottles and store in the fridge, where it will last for several days. Serve chilled.
Sometimes a white scum can form on the surface during the ferment (this means it hasn't been stirred frequently enough - the lacto-bacilli in the liquid will kill off any "bad" bugs so stirring keeps the fruit submerged). As long as the batch still smells good and fruity, the scum can be scraped off and the mixture stirred thoroughly.  A bad smell usually means it has gone off: abandon and start again.
After a couple of days, the fruit looks "cooked"
Once the kvass has been decanted, the remaining fruit looks "cooked"; however, it can be used for a second brew, which will be a bit weaker in flavour: just add honey and top up with water. After a second ferment, the fruit becomes pulpy and is ready for recycling (or put in the garden compost), or pureed and added to muesli, yoghurt and honey for breakfast.
Although it sounds like a summery drink, kvass can be made throughout the year, though fermentation slows a little in the winter.

Sunday 24 January 2016


Go quickly - the countdown has already started.

For three months until the end of February, the Laos Cafe pop-up is in residence on the corner of Wilton Street and Gillingham Street, Victoria, and according to London Foodie, it is the only place to find Laotian food in London. So there are two good reasons to visit sooner rather than later. A lonely outpost it may be, but its genes are good, the brainchild of Saiphin Moore, based on the home cooking of her childhood. Laos Cafe is using the space that she will be transforming into a new Rosa's Thai Cafe due to open in a few months' time. 

Seafood Noodle Salad

These are fresh, vibrant and light dishes, little changed, it would seem, from the SE Asian home: ingredients grown on the family plot (and plenty of herbs) cooked quickly over charcoal, full of strong flavours and a variety of textures. Featuring salad, fish and noodles or rice, with chilli and fish sauce, it is close to the cuisine of its cousins in Vietnam or Thailand, but also quite distinct from either. 

Aubergine Salad - silken aubergine with a sharp lime sauce
Spicy Pork

In an interview in The Telegraph, Saiphin vividly describes her childhood growing up in Phetchabun (a province straddling the Laos / Thai border), and her memories capture something of the freshness that is the hallmark of the food in her new venture: 
"At lunchtime, we all ate sticky rice and papaya salad.
Green papaya grows easily in Thailand - every house has a tree at the back. We smashed the garlic with green or red chillis (we preferred the Laos style - really spicy) and added tomatoes, fish sauce and anchovies.
People in the village would gather the watch.
I loved it so much they called me the master of papaya, and every time I smell chilli and garlic it takes me straight back." 
Fragrant and spicy Pork Skewers
The sharing plates are substantial here, not the case everywhere.  A highlight is the sticky rice, a foil for the lighter, zesty flavours of the other plates; the brown rice (it is actually red) is especially good, nutty and full of flavour. There is a short wine list and cold beers or hot jasmine tea, but only one desert.

Brown and white sticky rice steamed in banana leaves

The decor is minimalist, a few old b/w photos giving the briefest flavour of South East Asia, but this is a pop-up after all, in a temporary space soon to be refurbished.  The emphasis overall is on the simple, but that does not mean the food lacks care or attention to detail, while the service is helpful (and patient with those less familiar with Laos) - an extra batch of Pork Skewers is quickly put together to take home, along with salad and dipping sauce.  

It does what it says on the tin.
 25 Gillingham Street


Sunday 10 January 2016


The Kricket container at Pop Brixton
"We don't like Kricket, 
Oh no!  We love it!"  
(adapted from Dreadlock Holiday by 10CC)

So, the secret is out. The hidden gem that is Kricket has been revealed to all in the pre-Christmas edition of Time Out, its Keralan Fried Chicken selected at number 8 in the Top Ten Newcomers Dishes of 2015. The earlier Time Out review might have slipped by without too much notice, though they are consistently busy, but this will put Kricket properly on the map. 
Pop Brixton is the burgeoning container-unit yard just around the corner from the Village Market which sources its growing number of food stalls. The container-unit yard is constructed along the same lines as Box Park in Shoreditch, but is less less fashionista/commercial and more relaxed and food focussed.

Kricket serves up substantial "small plates" of light, highly flavoured Indian-style dishes. Attention to detail is considerable: the layers of contrasting textures add mouth-feel to the range of distinctive flavours; every dish attractively presented on earthen crockery and well garnished.

Bhel Puri

Bhel Puri: crisp and crunchy (think spicy rice crispies) and overlaid with rich, creamy yoghurt which contrasts with the sharp tamarind sauce.  The sprinkle of herb sprouts adds an extra perfumed flavour to the dish.

Smoked Aubergine

Smoked Aubergine: properly smoky but also smooth and rich; crisp papdi are ideal scooping up the fleshy goo of aubergine; crumbled peanuts add crunch, saltiness and sweetness.

Clove-Smoked Pigeon
Clove-Smoked Pigeon: subtle smoky clove flavours infuse the delicate flesh, matched with girolles, punchy garlic pickle and a raita flavoured with burnt grelot. Pomegranate seeds and micro herbs add further textures and flavours to this complex dish.

Goat Shoulder Raan
Goat Raan: perhaps the simplest dish, but that's not in any way a problem; tender meat is coated with a rich, spiced sauce, with wisps of heritage carrots adding a contrasting texture. Hearty and warming, this is a good winter dish.

The menu is not extensive (usually about eight plates and at least one desert, such as gulab jamum)  but everything is perfectly executed despite the tiny cooking and service space at the far end of the container. The service is friendly, knowledgeable and efficient.
Go quickly before the secret spreads or before Kricket moves on to a bigger space.

Saturday 18 April 2015


Majorca's windmills, its ancient waterways and springs are founded on structures originally created by the Moors, developments which transformed the agriculture and economy of the island. The Spanish reconquest in the thirteenth century ushered in a fierce campaign to obliterate all traces of the former occupiers, though there have been some survivors: you can still visit the old hammam / banys in Palma, dating back to the tenth century, with its characteristic domed roof and Moorish arches.
The ensaimada, especially the version filled with caramelised fruit or pumpkin, has its origins in Islamic culture of that period, evident both in its flavours and etymologically: the Catalan word, saimis based on the Arabic word (shahim) for lard, a key ingredient. An archaic meaning of the English word enseamed is "filled or covered with fat" which is pretty accurate overview of this distinctive and ubiquitous Mallorcan treat with its flaky crumb and soft interior.

Although dried yeast is used in modern Mallorcan cookery, the method includes long periods of fermentation, with the creation of something like the Italian biga to start the leavening process. This too would seem to suggest a reference back to a past when sourdough would have been the traditional raising agent.

   375g      white bread flour
   150ml    sourdough starter (100% hydration)
   120g      granulated sugar
   a pinch  sea salt
   2            large eggs
   100g      lard (softened for easy spreading)
   +            extra flour for working the dough
   +            icing sugar for decoration.

In a bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, salt and sourdough starter, kneading until the sticky dough forms a rough ball.  One at a time, break the eggs into the dough and continue kneading until fully incorporated and the dough becomes smooth. Leave in a warm place for several hours until doubled in size.
Flour a working surface; turn out the dough and roll it, sprinkling with flour as necessary, into a square of approx. 30x30cm. Then smear 75g of the lard over the dough's surface, before folding the dough in thirds, like a letter, and rolling it out back into its square shape.
Roll up the dough, to create a thickish rope.  Cut the dough into "wheels" about 2.5cm thick.  Take each piece and, using both hands, roll it out into a thin rope, about 30 - 40cm long. This takes a bit of practice! Then coil each piece into the traditional ensaimada shape, as in the picture below, tucking the outside end underneath the coils.  Place the ensaimadas onto a floured baking sheet, and brush them liberally with the remaining melted lard. Cover, and leave to rise for at least two hours.
Heat the oven to 180C and bake the ensaimadas until brown, about 15 minutes. Leave them to cool for 15 minutes, then place on a rack dusting liberally with sieved icing sugar.
Eat warm or cold. The Mallorcans dip them in coffee as a mid-morning snack, or eat them on the go.

Wednesday 24 December 2014


Petersham Nurseries Tearoom
"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London.
No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life;
for there is in London all that life can afford."
Samuel Johnson
Richmond's may be a long way out west, but it's only 50 minutes from East London by the old North London Line, now part of the London Overground network. It's an easy day out with shops and walks and any amount of messing about on the river.
Richmond Bridge - messing about on the river
When you are tired of Richmond, follow the river back towards the east, across the water meadow and you will stumble across the Petersham Nurseries, and a happy few hours browsing the plants and bric a brac, and then lunch or tea.
Inside the glasshouses
Rather than the promised "tranquil oasis and seedbed of inspiration" it's in full on seasonal celebration mode at this time of year. Both the Restaurant and the Tearoom are full of happy Christmas parties.

Christmas party time

Menu ... the Petersham Restaurant awaits

Sunday 19 October 2014


Roman Road is one of the oldest roads in London, following the original paved road built by the Romans to secure their colonial hold on south-east England. It was the major trade route between London and the Roman town of Colchester.  And it has been all about trade ever since.
Although it has one toe virtually in trendy Shoreditch, the other is firmly planted in the East End, nowhere more so than Roman Road Market itself, with its fruit and fashion stalls, and eel, pie and mash shop.
However, there is a new invasion taking place. Just as the gentrification of Hackney was made visible by the arrival of Foxtons (heralded by some as the day Hackney died), Entrepôt, Lardo, Raw Duck; so too coffee bars and estate agents have been steadily making their way towards the western boundary of "The Roman," as the market is called in these parts. Now Vinarius (a suitably Latinate name) has made the first proper breach, a wine bar with scrubbed brick walls, polished wooden floors opening within the market area itself. It brings with it the language of the invaders: "artisan", "craft", "authentic".
It's just the place to drop in and pick up a bottle of small estate Italian or Spanish wines; or an interesting Hungarian furmint which proves to be dry, light and crisp with hints of honeycomb sweetness. There is also a good range of prosecco, as well as local craft beers and an Italian olive oil.
Or stop by in for coffee or a glass of wine.  Bottles open last week included a salty almond Pecorino from Abruzzo (so named as sheep, "pecaro" in Italian, liked grazing on these grapes), and a citrus / orange peel flavoured Falanghina from Puglia. Then owner Eugenio opened a bottle of fresh minerally, biodynamic Gavi. 
With jazz noodling quietly in the background and large black and white pictures of the real East End on the walls (by David Hoffman), it is a pleasant place to while away the time.
You can find Vinarius beyond the Polish Deli and the Eel, Pie and Mash Shop in Roman Road Market:

Vinarius Wine Shop and Bar
536 Roman Road
East London.