We’ll walk the dog and then KP, his Mum and I will have smoked salmon and scrambled eggs while the teens hold their noses (anti-fish). Present opening will be followed by an hour on the beach complete with tiny Christmas tree, a cup of tea in a flask (maybe I’ll tuck something else in there too). Then it’s back for the main feast, turkey with all the trimmings and trimmings and trimmings. Our lovely neighbours will pop in for drinks … then sixteen of us will sit down at a long, long table. It’s a core crowd that goes back almost twenty years to days in Saudi Arabia and we’re celebrating our friendship, backgrounds and beliefs – six people will be avoiding the ham and sausages. Teen friends may or may not drop in, we’ll probably play games.
Are you thinking of whipping up a Christmas cocktail this year? The festive season is the perfect time to get a bit frivolous with a delicious mixture of aromas and flavours, simple and elegant, with a beautiful decoration – just like the perfect gift-wrapped present… and a little kick to set you up for the fun, laughter and friendship to follow. I’ve been inspired by a fantastic cocktail-making session I went to last December at Gaucho in Dubai. It’s a restaurant oozing with over the top glamour – all black, white and mirrors. The food and atmosphere are always superb, and the wine list really unique…consisting of predominantly Argentinian wines (more about that in another post). But first the cocktails. These are super easy to make and all amazingly sippable. Thanks to the wonderful bartender Amol who made these gorgeous cocktails watched us get sillier and sillier as the class progressed.
Maldemores -Tato Giovannoni
You’ll need 25ml of pear and Torrontés syrup.
To make this take one sliced pear and combine with half a litre of Torrontés wine and 300 g sugar, boiled together make a syrup. Let the wedges of pear infuse in the syrup.
Pour 50 ml of Malamado (this is a fortified Malbec but you could also use port) into a champagne glass
Top up with 50 ml of Champagne
Use the pear from the syrup as a garnish.
Christmas daiquiri (by Amol)
37.5 ml Sailor Jerry spiced rum
25 ml fresh lime juice
37.5 ml mulled wine syrup (see below)
Shake and double strain in martini glass.
Garnish with a strip of orange zest
Mulled wine syrup
- 500 ml of Malbec
- 10 g of cloves
- 10 g of star anise
- 4 cm of cinnamon stick
- one whole orange peel
Make a bouquet garni (tie in muslin cloth) with the spices and drop into the wine. Add 300 g of sugar. Bring to the boil, cover and reduce the syrup to around 300ml on a very slow flame.
Remove the bouquet garni from the syrup when desired flavour is extracted from spices.
Gaucho Espresso martini
- 37.5ml vanilla vodka
- 25ml Khalua
- Shot of espresso
Shake and double strain into a martini glass.
Add 12.5ml Frangelico for more flavour and shake very hard and fast in order to get a very good froth and less dilution.
All these cocktails are simple to make and fantastic for feeling frivolously festive. Try them at home or, if you get the chance, go in and sip one at Gaucho. If you are celebrating, have a wonderful Christmas. Do you have a favourite Christmas cocktail?
Disclosure: I was a guest of Gaucho Dubai for the Christmas cocktail making class but not obliged to write about it or say nice things.
Are you one of those people who have all your Christmas presents bought by the beginning of November? Do you wrap as you buy so you don’t have a last minute rush? I always intend to be that person and get off to a good start by buying stocking presents for my girls in Rossiters, a lovely, independent, department store in Bath, during August. I also tuck little presents away for KP as I find them throughout the year. Aren’t men SO difficult to buy for? I start thinking about my Christmas cooking at the beginning of September and at the very least start marinating some dried fruit in liqueur ready for cake and puddings. But wrapping? Despite my best resolutions, it always ends up being a concentrated few hours very near to Christmas day. In fact it’s become a ritual. As long as I have BBC Radio 4 as background listening I can wield tape, scissors and paper with military precision. Lots of tea, a glass of sherry and a slice of something moreish, also helps the time to pass bearably.
My Canadian friend Lee (who has all her shopping done and wrapped by early November) gave me this recipe near on two decades ago. It’s taken me that long to make it and now I’m wondering why. Moist, sharp, slightly sweet, the texture of the nuts and the gleaming cranberries combining in a crumbly loaf. I’ve converted it from volume to weighed measurements (i.e. cups to grams) and guessed at the amount of sugar as it was left out in the ingredients list. I’ve called it a loaf (rather than bread) as it’s cake-like in texture and not made with yeast. Believe me, it’s really good – you can eat it without any guilt whatsoever as it contains at least two of your five a day.
Wholemeal cranberry courgette loaf
- 45g softened, unsalted butter
- 200g dark brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- zest of an orange, grated
- 225g cranberry sauce
- 225g whole cranberries
- 160g wholemeal flour
- 150g plain flour
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 240g courgette, peeled and grated coarsely
- 100g walnuts, coarsely chopped
- Preheat the oven to 160 C
- Grease and flour a loaf tin.
- Beat the butter, sugar and eggs together until well combined and slightly fluffy.
- Stir in the grated orange zest, cranberry sauce and cranberries.
- Fold the flours, bicarbonate of soda and baking powder in the the mixture until just combined. Do not overmix.
- Lightly fold in the grated courgette and chopped walnuts.
- Spoon the mixture into the tin and gently level the surface.Bake for about 1 hour (or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean or with a crumb attached).
- Turn out of the tin and cool on a rack. Serve plain or spread with unsalted butter.
It may seem a bit odd to start making New Year’s resolutions about wine right now – and especially one that involves drinking more of it. Actually it’s the continuation of a constant resolution, a quest to keep learning, exploring and knowing more about the wonderful, endlessly fascinating world of wine…. and this involves tasting as many different and new wines as possible.
I’ve always thought this was a bit difficult here in Dubai. As everything is shipped in and it’s a relatively small market, we tend to get mainstream wines, big brands and very familiar grape varieties. I’d love to join the Wine Century Club which you can join if you’ve tasted 100 grape varieties (see my friend Erin’s account of getting through her century) but considered this pretty impossible in the U.A.E. So I was genuinely pleased to see the new ‘discover’ collection at MMI.
To quote the leaflet:
With wine, make sure you try something new as often as possible….
…don’t just stick to your favourite wine of brand because it’s safe – your new favourite bottle is out there waiting to be discovered.
So you can guess how intrigued I was opening the sample box of the discover wine selection (for November and December) that MMI sent me.
Let’s look at the whites.
- Are you surprised if I say that the Greek wine was the one I was itching to open first? Forget Retsina or dodgy wines you’ve sipped while on a package holiday. This wine is from beautiful Santorini; the wind whistles up and over the island so the Assyrtiko vines are trained in a basket shape to protect them. Grown using organic farming methods, with old vines on volcanic soil this is bone dry, citrussy with a tiny hint of green olives. Not an overly complex wine but balanced and superbly drinkable. Domaine Sigalas Asssyrtiko reminded me of a fino sherry without the yeasty notes (if that makes sense) and would be fantastic with olives and salty or fishy nibbles. It’s firmly on my list to buy again.
- I know the Martín Códaz Albariño well, it’s from the Rias Baixas region of Spain (pronounce it all with your tongue between your teeth) and adore it. Again it’s crisp, dry and very elegant with orchards of lemons, lime and grapefruit with a touch of stone fruit on the nose. It’s the perfect aperitif and is wonderful with seafood. I tasted an Albariño (by Paco & Lola Arousana) with a sea bass crudo and a prawn tartare at Sea Fu the other evening and it was the perfect pairing with these fairly acidic dishes. Definitely one to discover if you haven’t already…
- …and this also applies to the Laurenz V Singing Grüner Veltliner from Austria (a magnum of this will be making an appearance at our Christmas dinner). Aromatic, refreshing but balanced with a bit of creaminess.
- If you are struggling to get your tongue round the name Grüner Veltliner, give up and just grab the leaflet and point to the Moncaro Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classica ‘La Vele’ if ordering. When studying Italy for my wine exams it was easily the most difficult country. But I digress – looking forward to tasting this wine and while not expecting it to blow my socks off, the refreshing acidity of the Verdicchio grape means it could be, potentially, my new house wine for pouring to visitors who won’t drink anything other than Sauvignon Blanc. Here’s hoping….
- I have no idea what to expect from the Nadaria Grecanico (made from a grape variety brought to Sicily by the Greeks centuries ago); bargain basement price so not expecting wonders but who knows….
- The Freixenet Mia Blanco is made from some of the main grapes that go into Cava and is slightly sweet…. Let’s see. Could be a crowd pleaser (thinking back to the Moscato at a ladies lunch that had everyone swooning).
Onto the reds….
- …and the only one I’ve tasted before is the Zuccardi Serie A Malbec which is great value, full-bodied, bursting with black cherries, with structured tannins and leaves your teeth satisfyingly purple.
- I’ve longed to taste more Portuguese wine (bucket list wine trip) so the Casa Ferreirinha Papa Figos from the Douro will be the first I’m going to try.
- As a Southern Rhone lover I’m always attracted to the luscious juicy grenache grape and similarly drawn to its Spanish equivalent garnacha. The Pablo Old vine Garnacha from high altitude vineyards in Calatayud in Spain has the potential to be a fantastic match for your Christmas turkey. Hand harvested from 100-year-old bush vines, I’m hoping this good value red is a juicy, berry explosion. I’d better try it pronto (or should I say rápidamente).
- And talking of Rhone blends, the Spanish Campo de Borja from Penelope Sanchez is made of both Garnacha and Syrah. Not sure about the look of the label… but this is what ‘discover’ is all about.
- Tasting wine on a visit to Istanbul this year (read The Hedonista’s account) was a great experience but bringing some home prohibitively expensive so excited to see K of Kapadokia on the list. Drinking it must be easier than pronouncing the grape varieties of Öküzgözü and Boğazkere.
- Finally if you think wine from China is obscure you might be surprised to hear that it is now the fifth largest producer of wine in the world. This is my first taste so let’s see what I make of the Changyu Cabernet Gernischt…..
If you fancy trying any (or all) of these in Dubai or (RAK) just ask for the discover leaflet in MMI stores.
Bonus tips for obtaining your tipple in Dubai this festive season
- KP arranges an annual golf game in Al Hamra Ras Al Khaimah a couple of weeks before Christmas which is handy as you pass right past the door of The Cellar. There have to be a few compensations for golf widows – start dropping those hints about 18 holes by the sea now.
- Seasonal visitors arriving by plane? Call Le Clos, ( 04 220 3633) order and pay for your fine wines, then give the details of the incoming flight. There are some excellent 12 days of Christmas offers right now. Your visitors have a five bottle allowance each that you can make the most of. Otherwise drop big hints about this allowance and the availability of duty free in arrivals.
- Book your Smart Drive now, as it’s going to be busy.
Thanks to MMI for these samples – I had no obligation to write about them and I’ll give you an honest opinion about which ones I liked (or not).
Do you like discovering new wines? If not, what stops you from trying out something different?
If you are thinking that you might not need cheese with the fully laden table which makes up the Christmas feast, you and I have nothing in common. A Christmas cheese board is always welcome as a palate reviver as a foil to the sweet course. It’s the perfect snacking centrepiece and can be moved onto the coffee table to provide post-charades sustenance, or put to work among the cold turkey and ham. While you might not be able to face another mince pie, a sliver of savoury Cheddar, a morsel of salty blue or a slather of tangy goat’s cheese is always welcome. And drinking without food is such a bad idea isn’t it?
How to make the perfect cheese board
1. Go large
Three or four large hunks of different cheeses make a much more impressive festive spread than dozens of little mean-looking pieces which can overwhelm the palate. It’s practical too – large pieces of cheese store better. One magnificent slab of Stilton is a beautiful thing.
2. Contrasts and variety
One easy rule is to choose something hard, something blue and something soft. You could also choose cheeses made from different milk and go for goat, sheep, and cow’s milk varieties. Where possible, I like to choose local cheeses or at least all from the same country.
3. Keep it simple
Let the pure flavour of the cheese shine, so avoid anything with additions or flavourings. Cheese dotted with dried herbs or flavoured with spice is just too confusing for the taste buds.
4. Temperature and storage
If you have a cool larder, this is the best place to store hard cheeses, wrapped in waxed paper. Not being blessed with one of these here in Dubai, mine will be kept in the fridge, but ditch the cling film as soon as you get the cheese home (or buy from a cheesemonger who knows their wrapping). I follow Patricia Michelson‘s advice on keeping cheese and it really does make it taste better and last longer. Line a Tupperware-style container with a dampened J-cloth and add a couple of sugar cubes to create some humidity. Store blue cheese in a separate box, as it can interfere with the tastes of other cheeses. Always remove cheese from the fridge a good hour before serving so they come up to room temperature.
Like the cheese, don’t overwhelm with highly flavoured crackers. Simple water biscuits or Swedish rye crackers are perfect, or even French-style with some bread. Fresh fruit can be stunning with cheese; a slice of juicy pear with blue is absolutely heavenly. Nuts such as walnuts (as fresh as you can get) and almonds are nice to nibble (unsalted). It’s tempting to have chutney on hand, and cranberry sauce is great with blue cheese and Brie, but leave guests to choose for themselves – never dollop/pour it on the cheese – and avoid if you are drinking something nice as it’ll kill your palate for the wine. Good raw honey is fantastic for drizzling over cheese and don’t forget the best unsalted butter.
By the time you’re at the end of the Christmas feast, reach for something sweet like a classic port or Sauternes. Salt and tannins are not great partners so abandon your glass of Bordeaux when tucking into the Stilton. A refreshing glass of Champagne at the end of the meal is a good alternative and goes well with cheese. More advice on wine and cheese matching here (and see below).
7. Get help
Avoid going out with a strict shopping list and visit a cheese specialist who can give you advice about what’s good now and will go together. I asked several experts, here and in the UK, for their top tips on choosing cheese for Christmas:
Leiths School of Food and Wine
Max Clark, a senior teacher at Leiths and a font of endless cooking knowledge, has put together this cheese board recommendation. Leiths run a range of courses including specialist Christmas cookery and an artisan Christmas cheese-making class (a present for someone for next year?).
A cheese board from the British Isles
This cheese board comprises of soft, hard, creamy, young and mature cheeses; something for everyone, with wonderful accompaniments, such as chutney, compote, wafers and even bruschetta, to form a celebratory array, incomparable to the cheese sputnick, pineapple and grapes of the 70’s.
Cornish Yarg: A semi hard cheese with a creamy centre. Cornish Yarg is wrapped in nettle leaves and is made from cows’ milk; it has a fresh lemony flavour. It is delicious served with pear chutney and English cobnuts.
Ashdown Foresters: Made in Horstead Keynes in Sussex…..home of Winnie the Pooh! A salty, firm cheese; what else to serve with such a cheese but honey! Homemade lemon and honey poppy seed biscuits to accompany.
Caboc: A rich, Scottish cheese, made with pasteurized double cream: perfect for Hogmanay celebrations. Delicious served with warm or cold roast sugar plums and Scottish chilli oatcakes.
Rosary goat cheese: Rind-less, snow-white, creamy and fluffy; the queen of goat cheese. Clean, fresh flavour, lovely with a lightly spiced chutney, such as pineapple, or a crisp biscuit, such as sumac and pomegranate wafers.
Little Black Bomber: A very mature Cheddar from Snowdonia; cheese with attitude. Gorgeous with black fig bruschetta or Morello cherry compote.
Jones the Grocer
If you are in Dubai their cheese room is always a lovely place to visit – and they know about correct storage. Their advice from Filipa Almeida:
“When preparing a cheese board for a festive occasion like Christmas colour and quantity are key factors to have into consideration. Try to offer chunks rather than cubes or slices and to include colourful cheeses like Mimolette or Red Leicester. Depending on the amount of people you’ll be serving, a cheese board should feature one of each type of cheese: goat/sheep, washed rind, soft, semi-hard/hard, blue. Having this in mind, for a Christmas cheese board I would recommend:
Pouligny Saint Pierre (goat): beautiful fresh aged goat’s cheese with a bloomy white rind and shaped as a pyramid, great addition to any cheese board.
Reblochon: washed rind cow’s milk cheese from the Savoie region in France, legally produced with milk from only 3 local breeds of cows. Before serving the cheese board try to gently rub the rind of this cheese with a saline solution to bring to life its orange colour.
Vacherin Mont D’Or: seasonal soft cheese made with raw cow’s milk, available only between October and early March. This beautiful creamy cheese is a winner for any cheeseboard.
Quickes Vintage Cheddar: from one of the most renowned cheddar producers in the UK, and is an uncontested crowd pleaser.
Colston Basset Stilton: king of the blues, Stilton is a must have in any Christmas cheese platter, being considered by many the most iconic Christmas cheese.
If you’re hosting a big party and you want to go the extra mile and prepare an even more luxurious platter than I would definitely recommend you add:
Truffle Brie: The interior of this sensational Brie develops from a chalky state to rich and runny when ripe, it has fine layer of black summer truffles through the centre of the pate, making it a truly decadent and indulgent cheese.
Beaufort: King of the mountain cheeses, Beaufort d’Alpage is an elegant hard cheese with character and class, perfect for any premium Christmas cheese board.
Even though all these cheeses are very good on its own, I would suggest that you serve them with some fresh grapes, fresh figs and some walnuts. If you are a fan of fruit pastes then a damson paste or the typical quince paste would also work very well with this cheese board.
Owen Davies of Cheese Cellar, cheese and gourmet food suppliers in the UK, gives this advice:
“Quality is paramount and far more important than quantity. A traditional cheese board needs to appeal to all tastes so we would suggest serving between three and five cheeses. Generally you would look for a blue, a soft bloomy cheese, a hard Cheddar style, a pungent rind-washed and a goats cheese. This style of board covers the variation in taste, texture and maturation strength. Colour and appearance should be taken into consideration – Cornish Yarg is wrapped in nettles and has a beautiful lacy rind. There are some really special flavoured cheeses that are worth considering, such as Occelli al Barolo, which is enriched with DOCG Barolo wine or Barwheys Smoked – this is from Ayrshire in Scotland. This cheese really packs a punch – the wood chips come from the whisky barrels at Grant’s whisky distillery!”
My cheese board
I’m off to buy my cheese this week. A visit to the Jones the Grocer cheese room is de rigueur as they have the best English cheese selection. I will probably go for Quickes although would love to get my hands on some Montgomery, Keens or Westcombe unpasteurised Cheddar. Lafayette Gourmet is the next stop (see pic of one of their cheese boards below) which is an Aladdin’s cave of continental cheeses (they stock over 100). Last weekend, I picked up a hunk of organic Cropwell Bishop Stilton at Organic foods and Cafe and may go back for more – although Waitrose has large pieces of award-winning Colston Basset Stilton at a very reasonable price (Jones sometimes has their beautiful Shropshire Blue). If I can face battling my way into Carrefour, a Mont D’or will be oozing its way onto my table. Markets and Platters is rumoured to have a good cheese selection and the new Farmer’s Garden in Al Wasl Square stocks some delicious Italian ewe’s milk cheese and some gorgeous rye crackers from Sweden. If off to the Northern Emirates, Finer Things is a good source of French cheese.
If my cheese board has even a passing resemblance to a painting by Carravaggio, I’ll be happy! While I hate slate plates I like them for cheese and have a big one from Crate and Barrel. Natural wood is good too and I’ve bookmarked Stych Farm studios for ordering this summer (planning ahead!). Lime Tree in Dubai sells some attractive wooden ones too. Make sure you have enough knives and cheese cutters – at least one per cheese.
So what’s your favourite cheese on the Christmas table?
The final count is in; there will be sixteen of us round the table on Christmas day… and I’m doing the cooking. There are a few butterflies but mainly I’m excited to spend a day eating drinking and making merry with my family and some friends who go back for eons. It does mean it’s important to keep ahead on the preparations and I try to tick off something every day. A combined feast means that there are dishes that absolutely have to be on the table for someone. Brussels sprouts and parsnips are non-negotiable for my lot; bread sauce, sage and onion stuffing and bacon wrapped chipolatas for another family; and one friend always asks “we will be having that red cabbage you make, won’t we?”. We will.
I thought this would be perfect for making in the slow cooker and it is. There’s no real difference in effort between making like this or in a cast iron casserole in the oven, but it’s much more economical as it just needs to braise away for a few hours – and the slow cooker uses the same energy as a light bulb.
As all my Christmas food, I think that less in more when opening the spice cupboard and advise you once again to leave that cinnamon stick and cloves alone. A crisp, fresh red cabbage plucked from the ground near Dubai, bought at the farmers’ market and chopped within hours of getting home, needs very little added to it – although one of those things is red wine. Quelle surprise.
Braised red cabbage - slow cooker
- 1 small red cabbage (about 1 kg)
- 100g butter plus a drizzle of olive oil or 100g ghee
- 1 small red onion, chopped to medium dice
- 1 dessert apple, peeled, cored and chopped coarsely
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 60ml red wine
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Parsley (see note below)
1. Remove any limp or discoloured leaves from the outside of the cabbage and cut into quarters. Cut out the thick white core from each quarter and then cut into fine shreds (you could do this in the food processor). Rinse well and drain.
2. Heat the butter and oil, or the ghee (clarified butter) in a very large frying pan. Add half the cabbage and cook for about a minute until it starts to wilt. Remove to the slow cooker pot with a slotted spoon and repeat with the remaining cabbage. Add the onion and apple and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring often. Add the red wine vinegar and the red wine and season. Pour the whole lot into the slow cooker.
3. Cook in the slow cooker on the auto setting until tender to the bite but not too mushy. Start checking after 2 and half hours – you can leave it slightly firmer if you are freezing and reheating. Taste before serving and add seasoning and a dash more red wine vinegar if required.
Note: As this is for the Christmas table I have garnished it with flat-leaved parsley – and jolly festive it looks too. This is in spite of my usual strict adherence to Prue Leith’s advice not to garnish with anything that has not been used in the dish. Dill would work really well here too.
Linking up to Ren Behan’s wonderful Simple and in Season round up event.
What absolutely, categorically, HAS to be on your Christmas or celebration table?
We picked our way through stems of marigolds with their puff-ball flowers of tangerine, ochre and vermillion. The air was alive with the wings of butterflies which fluttered leisurely from bloom to bloom. A lady wrapped in a dappled fuschia sari darted away from seiving grain from chaff and took refuge in a hut made of sticks. A young Mother and her daughter strolled, not so casually, through the flowers knowing full well how photogenic they were. Adil caught a little black bee by the wings to show to the group. Rashed pulled the seeds from a dried flower head and displayed the spiky treasure in the palm of his hand.
In rural Rajasthan we saw many marigolds; they are used in abundance in religious ceremonies, but here they were planted as a companion crop to deter pests.
Calendula Officianalis or ‘pot marigold’ attracts beneficial insects and has natural antimicrobial properties.
It’s not a practice used widely by the visiting U.A.E. organic farmers at present, but Rashed explained that when he uses the petals in his chicken feed they lay eggs with yolks as golden as the marigolds. This small trade of knowledge between an Emirati farmer who has decades of experience with an Indian farmer who is drawing on a legacy of centuries of toil, trial and error on the land, encapsulates what this whole trip was about.
The sun warmed our backs and we wandered back past cows, haystacks, down a lane which looked like it could have been plucked from the English countryside, to drink tea with the farmer and his family.
I traveled from the U.A.E. to Rajasthan, India in November 2014 with four organic farmers on a knowledge-exchange trip with Indian organic farmers, organised by Baker and Spice and Down to Earth. This is the first in a series of short stories about a weekend full of fascinating experiences.