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Wine making by taxi

October 11, 2014

When the Farmers’ Market opens again at the end of November, I’ll buy all my veg for the week direct from the farmer who grows it (organically). Fresh (picked that morning), full of flavour and reasonably priced is what brings me there to buy, but I’ve learned so much about different vegetables and ways to cook them just through asking the stallholders and other shoppers. ‘Local’ in the U.A.E. usually refers to the indigenous Emiratis but as eighty per cent of our community is made up of other nationalities I’ve received advice from people from all sorts of cultures, traditions and backgrounds.

I would love to have a similar opportunity to get to know the people who grow and make the wine I drink. Having grown up in the UK and living in the Middle East for almost twenty years this has not ever been possible. That’s not to say this region is devoid of wine growing traditions or vineyards. Iran is just across the Persian Gulf and, while sales of alcohol have been banned since 1979, wine forms an integral part of Persian culture. Mey, the word for wine, and Saghi, the wine pourer, have been central motifs of Persian poetry for well over a thousand years; there is evidence that Shiraz, a city in South-West Iran, is one of the earliest wine-making sites.

Syria - My Custard Pie

Krak des Chevaliers – Syria

The nearest places to Dubai that are currently producing wine are India, Jordan and Syria. Yes, I did say Syria. One producer, Domaine de Bargylus, is still growing grapes, making wine and selling them to high-end restaurants across the world.  Being a wine maker in a war zone is not easy. Sandro and Karim Saade, the brothers who own the vineyard, and their wine consultant Stephane Derenoncourt make their harvesting and wine-making decisions remotely from Lebanon and haven’t been able to visit for two years.  They inspect the fruit by sending refrigerated grapes over the border in a taxi. Exporting the finished wine is also difficult as it has to be sent via Egypt and Lebanon. However, the wine has many high-profile supporters and is served in Michelin-starred restaurants including those headed up by Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing in the UK.

When I saw a bottle of Bargylus at Le Clos at Dubai airport when I was flying out to Istanbul, I had no idea of this incredible story. I just knew that if there was a bottle of fine wine from Syria I had to try some. When I opened it a couple of weeks ago, I still hadn’t done my research so just poured and sipped with a friend and no preconceptions. A gleaming, golden liquid with intense depth of flavour but with surprising acidity which just makes it super drinkable. Rich, creamy round and balanced with stone fruit and soft citrus aromas and palate with a trace of steely minerality. Beautiful texture. A real pleasure to drink. This is an opulent wine which I think would have pleased the Romans who also cultivated the same slopes 3000 years ago.

Syria - My Custard Pie

4th century monastery at Maaloula Syria

Where to buy Bargylus in the U.A.E.

If you want to take a bottle home with you it’s stocked at Al Hamra Cellar, Ras Al Khaimah. Currently Bargylus Blanc is  110 AED and Bargylus Rouge 154 AED. You can order through MMI Al Wasl branch or through Le Clos in the airport. More info about buying wine in the U.A.E. here.

When dining out, Bargylus is on the wine list at Qbara, La Serre, The Royal Mirage and Jumeirah Emirates Towers.

With terrible news from Syria on a daily basis, it’s hard to believe that pickers have been out in the vineyard harvesting the grapes by hand this week. With such a humanitarian tragedy still happening right on our doorstep, it’s amazing to be able to report this.

The pictures here are from a visit to Syria in 2008.

Syria - My Custard Pie


Damascus Syria - My Custard Pie

View over Damascus at night

Do you have the opportunity to drink locally produced wine where you live? Do you think it’s an advantage to visit the vineyard and meet the grower and winemaker of the wine you are drinking?


Bargylus Blanc 2008 – well worth seeking out

I’m joining the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #MWWC12 with this article – read all about it over on The Drunken Cyclist. Theme this month – Local.

Iranian-style sweet and sour olives

October 7, 2014

Iranian sweet and sour green olives -  mycustardpie.comIt was one of those special nights, spent with good friends who have known each other forever. The wines were good, the banter was lively, within moments at the table white damask napkins were knotted as handkerchief hats, soon the dog was wearing one too. The menu planning was just right so I wasn’t dashing around at the last-minute and there were enough murmurs of contentment to reassure me that everyone was happy.

The evening began in the kitchen, as it inevitably does, with Sipsmith gin and tonics and nibbles.  I gave a warning that the olives, in their strange coating of purple-brown, knobbly dressing, might be, ahem, rather unusual. As one after another were speared from the bowl to a chorus of ‘God, they’re gorgeous’ one olive-hating friend stood back. In the end, the commotion got the better of him and he reached out tentatively with a cocktail stick. A Damascene moment, an olive conversion. Don’t you just love it when that happens?

Menu with an Iranian influence

is what I dubbed this dinner; this was the menu for ten of us:

  • Plov (from Do-Ahead Dinners by James Ramsden) – chicken thighs cooked in spices, deboned and shredded, stirred into fragrant rice, rice with chicken stock, tangy with herbs and pomegranate seeds.
  • Carrots roasted with smoky Emirati honey and za’atar, sprinkled with fresh herbs and toasted pine nuts (from the same book).
  • Yoghurt, cucumber and mint or maast va khiar (From A Persian Kitchen by Jila Dana-Haeri)
  • Tamarind coriander chutney or chutni-e gashneez (as above) – a spicy, tangy, addictive sauce, the perfect foil for the plov
  • Salad e Shirazi – a salad of diced cucumber, tomato and onion tossed with vinegar and dried and fresh mint (Pomegranates and Roses by Ariana Bundy)
  • Chocolate and apricot tart (Art of the Tart by Tamasin Day-Lewis) – very un-Persian except for the sheet of apricot paste used in the filling which comes from Iran. Most requested dinner party dessert.
  • Cheese board including a baked Camembert (I have to serve cheese).

Iranian sweet and sour green olives -

Iranian style sweet and sour olives

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

I adapted this from Jila Dana-Haeri’s recipe for zeiton parvardeh as I thought 4 cloves of raw garlic might be particularly anti-social. It also looked very brown so the pomegranate seed garnish is not traditional but, to me, seemed appropriate and added a nice, sharp crunch.


  • 1 large clove of garlic
  • 50g walnuts
  • 120ml pomegranate molasses
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried mint
  • scant 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 teaspoon golpar (Persian hogweed, sometimes known as Angelica seeds)
  • 300g small green olives, with or without stones
  • handful of fresh pomegranate seeds (optional)


  1. The easiest way to make this is in a small food processor or grinder (I use the attachment with my stick blender). Whizz up the garlic until finely minced then add the walnut and process again until finely chopped but not a powder. Otherwise chop them by hand until fine. Transfer to a bowl.
  2. Stir in the pomegranate molasses, half the lemon juice, the mint and thyme (or golpar). Fold in the olives. Taste – it will be sour but the molasses can also be quite sweet. If you want a fresher taste add a bit more lemon juice until it’s the way you like it.
  3. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for a couple of hours (will keep happily for several days).
  4. Serve garnished with pomegranate seeds and some cocktail sticks (the olives are sticky).

Marinated olives are simple to do and have a wow factor when friends come round. Here are three more marinade ideas from Laura. The pomegranates from Oman mean that these definitely qualify for Ren’s Simple and in Season.

What’s your favourite thing to cook for a crowd?

Inebriate your Christmas cake – start now

October 4, 2014

Christmas cake fruit soak -  mycustardpie.comThere’s a relaxed and joyful feeling about Dubai this weekend. Many people are celebrating Eid Al-Adha, one of the biggest events of the year in the Muslim calendar. Others are marking Vijayadashami or Dussehra and the victory of good over evil in the Hindu religion. As for my family, we had good friends round for supper on Thursday. It was a ‘dry night’ (i.e. no alcohol was served in shops, restaurants or hotels from Thursday night until Friday evening) so I expect many people were staying in. It’s a long weekend so my mind has turned to Christmas cooking including giving the fruit for my cake a gentle stir now and again. It also gave me a reason to think about the benefits of living in a place with over 80 different nationalities, each with their own beliefs and customs.

Getting the fruit started as early as possible is the key to cutting into a luscious, moist, crumbly, fragrant cake on Christmas day.  A week ago I made a light sugar syrup, let it cool, added booze and folded it into a mixture of dried fruit. I got this idea from the Pink Whisk and Bourke Street Bakery a few years ago and that’s what I do every year now with tweaks and variations along the way.

In the past I’ve taken favourite cake recipes (Nigella’s and Tamasin Day Lewis) and introduced the boozy soaking element. This year I thought I’d go back to Bourke Street. This is a lovely book by Paul Allum and David McGuinness who started a small, artisan bakery in Sydney’s Surry Hills which gained huge popularity and renown.  I replaced the figs with extra dried fruit, I’ll stir in some fresh dates from the market in a few weeks time, plus I used Jack Daniels Single Barrel which is super-smooth with a slick of vanilla.  If I buy individual bags of raisins, sultanas and currants, there are dribs and drabs hanging around at the back of the cupboard so I use a bag of plump, mixed, flame raisins and sultanas from Waitrose. I’d avoid the mixed fruit mixtures with candied peel as they tend to be poor quality.

Christmas old soak

  • Servings: makes a 20 cm (8 inch) round cake or 18cm (7 inch) square cake
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print


  • 55g vanilla caster sugar
  • 55ml water
  • 160 ml bourbon (or other spirit such as whisky or brandy)
  • 455g mixed fruit (see above)
  • 110g stoneless prunes, chopped
  • 55g homemade or good quality mixed peel
  • 1 knob stem ginger, chopped finely
  • 80g fresh dates (at the rotab stage of ripeness) – use dried if not available


  1. Put the sugar and water in a small pan and heat gently, swirling the pan until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and then take off the heat.
  2. Let the sugar solution cool and add the bourbon (whisky or brandy).
  3. Put all the fruit except the fresh dates into a plastic container with a lid. Pour in the soak and give a good stir.
  4. Stir everyday for one week – the aroma will be amazing.
  5. After this you need to stir the fruit once a week, for the next four weeks. Add the fresh dates two weeks before you are going to bake with the mixture.
  6. If you start really early, after four weeks you can keep the fruit in the fridge. Bourke Street says up to 2 months but I’ve kept steeping fruits in the fridge for over a year and it only gets better.
Christmas cake fruit soak -

Adding the alcohol – sharp-eye viewers will notice lack of candied peel

The baking part will follow in a few weeks time (I’ll supply the Christmas cake recipe), but for now just get your old soak on. It’ll be well worth it. What have you been up to this weekend in your kitchen?


What to drink in October #MerlotMe

October 1, 2014

MerlotME -

Your perception of wine made with Merlot might have something to do with a) where in the world you live and b) whether you have watched the film Sideways.

For those not in the latter category, this is a film about a couple of guys who go on a trip around Santa Barbara wine country in the US. Miles, who thinks he knows a lot about wine and reveres Pinot Noir, and is utterly disparaging about Merlot.

If anyone orders Merlot I am leaving. I am not drinking f***ing Merlot!

The irony is that an expensive and rare bottle of wine he is keeping at home for a special occasion is a 1961 Cheval Blanc is is a blend of about 49 percent Merlot and 51 percent Cabernet Franc.

Until varietal labeling hit our shelves a couple of decades ago in Europe, we drank Merlot without even thinking about it, usually blended with other grapes lending a soft, velvet mouthfeel with plum and chocolate or tobacco flavours to balance more tannic, structured elements from other grapes varieties. Any backlash has come from the cheaper, bulk wines, often from the New World that flooded the market.

To encourage everyone to love the much maligned, supremely versatile and, in the right hands, very lovely grape variety, the #MerlotMe campaign has been launched and starts today. This is a month-long celebration, including sharing, tasting and events (centred in the US). Like all these varietal events on social media, everyone around the world can join in and share their Merlot moments by using the hashtag #merlotme.

My Custard Pie: what to drink for #merlotme

What to drink during MerlotMe month?

I asked wine experts from the two main suppliers in Dubai for drinking suggestions in three price ranges. I also asked for a wine which was made with grapes grown with organic viticulture. You can probably get these wines where you live if you want to try them. Unless you live in the heart of a wine producing region where they grow Merlot, in which case hit the vineyards with a vengeance (I would). Here’s what Tony and Fraser recommended:

Affordable (30 – 40 AED)

  • Valdivieso Merlot, Chile: – A school night classic – easy drinking and satisfying plummy Merlot with a hint of mocha. 39 AED MMI
  • Bio Bio Merlot IGT :Italian wine, made from organic grapes and delivering fantastic value for money. Good quality wine with a conscience.  30-49 AED* A+E

A little bit more, (AED 45 – 70)

  • Torres Atrium Merlot, Penedes, Spain:  Shows a mature side of Merlot – a bit more serious and grown-up. 61 AED MMI
  • Casa Merlot, Lapostolle Founded by Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle and her husband in 1994, Lapostolle’s aim is to produce world-class wines using French expertise and the terroirs of Chile. 100% of their vineyards are under organic and biodynamic management. French in Essence. Chilean By Birth. 45 – 50 AED* A+E

Blow the budget (over 100 AED)

  • Duckhorn Merlot, Napa Valley, CA , USA The wine that made Duckhorn famous – an absolute quacker. 280 AED MMI
  • Merlot, Morgenhof  Morgenhof Wine Estate is situated on the slopes of the Simonsberg mountains. This area is renowned
    for the high quality of its grapes and the distinctive terroir is reflected in the character of the exceptional
    wines. Owned by Mrs Cointreau, it consists of 212 hectares of which 74 hectares are under vines. 110 – 120* AED (Select stores) A+E


  • Bonterra Merlot, California  Smoky and dense with a purity of fruit, from a much improved property of late. 97 AED MMI
  • See ‘affordable’ for Fraser’s recommendation from A+E.

Where to buy in the UAE

A+E in Dubai and Abu Dhabi stores, as well as their new shop in Fujairah (Fujairah Cellars). MMI at 14 shops located across Dubai and the Al Hamra Cellar in the Northern Emirates. Make sure you have a liquor license.

Thanks to Tony Dodds, Head of Group Agency Wine at MMI and Fraser Mackenzie, Marketing Manager Wine at African and Eastern (A+E) for their picks. *Fraser supplied wines recommendations within a price range – for the individual price per bottle please check in store. Prices for all wines exclude Dubai sales tax and are correct at time of writing this.

My Custard Pie: what to drink for #merlotme

My own personal Sideways moment

For a brilliant guide to Merlot tasting, food pairing (it is superbly food friendly) and the main differences between cool and warm climate Merlot, visit Wine Folly. If you follow me on Twitter (@mycustardpie) I’ll be sharing any #MerlotMe events that I hear about in the UAE.

More Merlot or still not convinced? Will you be raising a glass this October and what will be in it?

How to build a gin collection

September 30, 2014

How to build a gin collection -  mycustardpie.comThe only spirits that arrived in our house, when I was growing up, was vodka of dubious provenance brought from Poland. It acted like a magic charm as all the men became slightly flushed and started wild dancing while the women looked bemused. My lexicon of spirits was severely limited; gin and tonic sounded like something horrible that old people would drink. I remember my first sip of this deliciously refreshing bitter, fragrant, citrus-scented drink even now. It was baptism into the intriguing, perfumed, beguiling, slightly dark and mysterious world of gin.

After years of big brand domination and being the poor relation to whisky and vodka, interesting, artisanal, quirky and premium gins are popping up all over the place. I resolved that this summer I would seek out as many unusual gins as possible and find out what made them different. I would transform myself into the Phileas Fogg of the gin … OK I’m getting carried away now. But let me assure you that this determination reaped rewards:

Wöden, Psychopomp, at Raffles Fine Wines, Nailsworth

“Mum, you like gin” This rather unsubtle phrase was uttered a bit too knowingly for my liking by veggie teen in the middle of Raffles Fine Wines in Nailsworth. But yes, the medicinal style bottle with a home-made parcel label did look interesting. Would I like a taste? A very pure herbal hit of juniper reminded me of Bathtub gin I’d enjoyed with my friend in Switzerland. The first addition to my excess baggage was secured.

Wöden: Psychopomp Micro-Distillery is a small, independent distillery in Bristol producing craft distilled gin in small batches and limited quantities. Wöden is their first gin and they produce limited edition, seasonal variations too.

Portobello Road at Crazy Eights (at 131 The Promenade)

Arriving at the hottest new place in Cheltenham a little too early, I propped up the bar and asked the barman which gin he’d recommend. After a grilling more thorough than some job interviews I’ve had, he suggested I make up my mind by sampling two. Martin Miller’s and Portobello Road gin. Both were right up my street with a bitterness and purity that makes me feel like I’m inhaling a perfumed iceberg. The Portobello Road just edged it. Why aren’t more bars like this?

Portobello Road: This was released by the award-wining Notting Hill bar, Portobello Star and home of the Ginsitute (still on my wish list). An Old-style London dry gin available direct from the bar plus a few other retailers. Sadly didn’t manage to bring one home.

Plymouth gin in Plymouth

No tasting involved during this quick visit but this is a gin we can get (and have got) in Dubai. The Barbican, once the setting for some fairly dodgy pubs and dodgier clientele is now charming without being twee. The narrow cobbled streets are lined with little shops and art galleries. The success story extends to Plymouth Gin too which house in what was once a Dominican Order monastery built in 1431, was rescued from the brink of collapse to become a treasured gin of great quality (and strength). Tours of this boutique distillery are run daily.

Plymouth gin: Is actually a PGI but The Black Friars Distillery is the only remaining gin distillery in Plymouth. Once the world’s largest volume brand of gin with 1000 cases a week going to New York alone in the 1900’s, it’s a full-flavoured serious gin, has a sweeter, earthier, smooth style which is not overly complicated.

Tarquin’s at Flavour Fest Plymouth

Gin made in Cornwall, of very limited quantities, at the tiny South West distillery, just had to be sampled. I’d seen it in Creber’s in Tavistock and wondered at the name. It turns out a young man called Tarquin makes it. At Flavour Fest Plymouth had a long chat with his very earnest and charming sister – clearly both siblings are passionate about what they are doing (they grow Devon violets specially to go in the gin for instance). If only another space could have been found in my bag for this one. It tasted lighter, more delicately perfumed than many gins, quite citrus in taste – was I imagining a slight hint of sea salt as I tasted this in Plymouth?

Tarquin’s gin: Only 300 bottles or less are made per batch in a pot still from wheat spirit using pure, local water from Boscastle. Tarquin makes Cornish pastis (as opposed to pasties) too.

Gin tasting at John Gordons, Cheltenham

My visit to John Gordons is another post entirely.  I expected a quiet Sunday afternoon tasting gin, the comprehensive march through history while drinking gin led to me walking back to my Mum’s house rather than catching the bus so I could, er, ‘clear my head’. I learned so much fascinating stuff from Dean from the origins of gin as Dutch Genever through Victorian times and Old Tom styles to modern-day artisanal distilleries (Cotswold gin was released this month). Thank goodness I took copious notes. If you are in Cheltenham do check out this brilliant independent wine bar and merchant’s excellent range of wine, whisky and, naturally, gin. My favourite of the day was Sloane’s (not yet in my collection)…

Sloane’s Dry Gin: A Dutch gin voted the World’s Best Gin, Best White Spirit, and awarded a Double Gold Medal at the 2011 San Francisco World Spirit Competition as well as many other accolades. Sloane’s process differs as they make several different single botanical gins and blend them together.

Harrington Dry Gin at Tivoli wines, Cheltenham

As a PS to the last paragraph, as I wavered past this gem of an independent wine merchant I felt compelled to wander in. The lady behind the counter ignored any slur in my speech (and believe me, I’m sure there was one) and we set to discussing wine and then got onto the topic of the afternoon’s tasting. She enthusiastically urged me to try Harrington Dry Gin . Tasting more gin was probably not the most advisable thing to do and actually I was feeling a bit ginned-out. The delicious aromas of lavender and spicy aromatic flavours made this a real pleasure though. I must have been mad not to buy this.

Harrington Dry Gin: Made by Warner Edwards, a couple of friends and craft distillers, at Falls Farm in Northamptonshire. Based on barley spirit flavoured with eleven botanicals sourced from farms in Wales and England.

Sacred gin, Le Clos, Dubai Airport

When dropping an email to Le Clos to buy some duty free bottles (never underestimate the delight of having someone meet you at the airport with a bag of wine), for some reason they mentioned their new stock of Sacred gin. Would I like to order some?

Sacred Gin: The Sacred Spirits Company is a craft distillery in Highgate, North London and made by Ian! Similar method to Sloane’s as they use twelve organically sourced botanicals which are macerated with the high quality English grain spirit and then distilled separately in glassware under vacuum and blended together.

How to build a gin collection -

My gin collection

I was a bit bashful about telling KP quite how much gin I had accumulated but he was quite taken with the idea of a collection (even though he never touches the stuff). Other bottles in our cupboard include:

Hendrick’s Gin: A triumph of quirky marketing, Hendrick’s started the conversation about craft distilling and unusual botanicals. Owned by William Grant’s, a Scottish distiller usually know for whisky, its heavy, medicinal style, opaque bottle houses a gin heavy with juniper but also Bulgarian rose and cucumber (which is recommended as an accompaniment rather than lemon in a Hendrick’s G&T).

No 3 London Dry Gin: The proprietary recipe of London’s oldest wine and spirit merchant, Berry Bros. & Rudd. Traditional, pure, stylish and focused on juniper.

Sipsmith London Dry Gin: The first copper-pot based distillery to start up in London in 189 years, located in a small, residential street (can you imagine being neighbours!) although it has recently moved. As well as a traditional London Dry gin they make one called A Very Junipery Over Proof gin.

Wish list

I was astonished how many people make gin now (on my recent travels I noticed Bath gin and Edinburgh gin among others). Gins still on my tasting wish list include The Botanist (made of botanicals only sourced on Islay), Cotswolds Dry gin (from Cotswold Distillery), Chase gin (from a distillery started by the people who make Tyrell’s crisps as something to do with their potato peelings), Hoxton gin (this cocktail and review from Tinned Tomatoes whetted my appetite) and Monkey 47 which I spotted at Hakkasan, Dubai for over 200 AED a shot (over 30 GBP), albeit a double measure.

The more exotic gins put my old bottles of Gordons and Beefeater in the shade (they are flavoured with juniper oil apparently – thanks Dean) so here’s some ways to use them up:

Is gin your preferred tipple? Do you have a drinks collection? Is this a bit obsessive? (actually don’t answer that question)

What Flavour Fest Plymouth reveals about British food obsessions

September 28, 2014

It was a rainy day in Plymouth (Devon, UK) but the crowds were still out to sip, taste, nibble and sample their way round the stalls of Flavour Fest. Pick up a newspaper, leaf through a magazine, drive through a village and read the signs – in the past few years there has been an explosion of food festivals in the UK, especially during the summer. They range from big ones like Taste of London, the Foodies Festivals, BBC Good Food Shows and The Big Feastival, festivals centred on one place such as the Ludlow Food Festival,  Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival  to specialist events like the Tavistock Real Cheese Fair, British Asparagus Festival and Dorset Seafood Festival. Top of my own personal wish list is the Ballymaloe Literature Festival of Food and Wine in Ireland (not UK I know).

Having a look at what was on offer to eat and drink, I couldn’t help thinking that the stalls gave a snapshot of our food obsessions as a British nation. Here’s my not very scientific rationale…

Celebrity chefs

Like the minor ‘slebs’ I’ve never heard of that populate the pages of OK and Hello, it seems that every chef has star status these days. Of course there are those in the stellar reaches of the chef-o-sphere like Rene Redzepi and Ferran Adrià (who do pop up occasionally); TV chefs come next with Jamie and Nigella as royalty trickling down to past contestants on the Great British Bake Off; then there are a whole herd of regional chefs from Michelin-stardom to just having the gift of the gab and a boyish smile. Whoever they are, we all want to watch them cook (and taste their food).

Over the three days in Plymouth, the Tanner Brothers and Mitch Tonks were the big names. The rest of the schedule was filled by chefs from renowned local restaurants. Ben Squire & Jack Noades of the Boat House Cafe, Stephane Beneteau of  The Glassblowing House, Dave Jenkins from the Rock Salt Cafe, Nick Barclay of The Blue Plate, Benjamin Palmer of Glazebrook House Hotel, and Joe Draper & Andy Richardson of the River Cottage, Royal William Yard were among many who took the stage.

Bring on the booze

Drink is everywhere, and by this I mean the hard stuff. From the proliferation of bargain booze stores to the displays in supermarkets to signs outside pubs it does seem like we Brits are obsessed with it. Having lived in the Middle East for over two decades, the ability to sample, buy and drink alcohol in the street is an extreme novelty.

A food festival is the place to root out artisan brewers and distillers; in Plymouth there was an array of cider, ale, wine, liqueurs and a gin producer. My favourites were Crispy Pig ale from The Hunter’s Brewery, Devon Mist from Sandford Orchards, I also tasted blueberry beer and Tarquin gin (and met Tarquin!) I didn’t taste any Old Cock (raised by hand) or Lazy Sod from Direct Beers “Giving good beer a bad name”. Fnarr, fnarr.

Passion for pork

It is now obligatory to have a hog roast at every food event of any size (there were two here). I naturally gravitate to these as it’s difficult to order pork at restaurants in Dubai and impossible to eat on the street. One gourmet burger stand tempted with hand salt and herb rubbed crackling. In the end I made do with a bite of elder teens pulled pork bun with crunchy slaw as something else turned my head lunchwise. A lady, passing this stall, asked “What’s everyone queuing for here?” “PORK” the man in front of me answered. Enough said.

Who ate all the pies?

Once upon a time, the only pasty you found outside Cornwall was a rather industrial-looking, plastic wrapped Ginsters in a chill cabinet. These days they are everywhere and thankfully of much better quality. Our passion for pastry extends to pies too. Chunk of Devon were doing brisk business (although they came bottom of this year’s pasty eating charts). We bought a very rustic and homemade looking steak pasty from Red Earth Kitchen (good) and one from Cornish Country Meats (which won the award for the unfriendliest stall holder and most stingy amount of filling). KP takes pasties very seriously.

Farmhouse cheese

The stalls of Worthy Cheddar, Cornish Cheese Co and Norsworthy Dairy Goats were hard to get near. British farmhouse cheese making, nearly killed off by proposed over-regulation in the 1950’s and saved from extinction by cheese fanatics such as Major Patrick Rance, has never been more exciting, diverse or inviting.


While people were tucking into real ale or cider rather than a cuppa, the British love for tea and cakes is alive and well. What could be more typical than a freshly-baked scone? Even when my sister and I struggled to find a decent evening meal in Derbyshire this summer, the quality of the cakes was never in any doubt.  Several high-end establishments were handing scones out in Plymouth to eager takers. Slathered in clotted cream and jam? Need you ask.

A taste of the world

All very traditionally British up to now? How about a dish of curried goat (from Afro Caribbean Pot), a plate of paella, a taste of Tom Yang Goong (Thai Style) or a cheeky quesadilla (Sabor de Mexico)?  The world has come to Britiain and we’ve welcomed them a a plate, literally. Our enthusiasm and reinvention of Bangladeshi and Indian curries is well-documented (balti and chicken tikka masala). So many other nationalities have made their homes in the UK including Jamaicans in the 1960s, Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, Vietnamese boat people in the 1980s. Our multiculturalism is served up from pots and saucepans.

Flavour Fest Plymouth

The evil chilli purveyors

Faves from the fest

  • The BEST TARTS I HAVE EVER EATEN IN MY LIFE. The lightest, crumbliest pastry, home cooked in an Aga and filled with combinations such as Devonshire goats cheese with dandelion greens and onion marmalade, Lundy crab, Cornish chorizo, and wild Exmoor venison. Big Bellys I am making a date with you again next summer.
  • Smokey BBQ pulled pork with tangy slaw in a bun and Moroccan spiced lamb with giant couscous and herb salad in homemade flatbread from Field and Kitchen. Winners of the Exeter street food festival 2014 serving up sustainable food from local, seasonal ingredients. They seem super nice too.
  • The hottest chilli sauce I have ever tasted, no joke. I had to run over to Sandford Orchards and beg for a swig of their sweetest cider after a taste of their bhut jolokia mash. This should carry a health warning South Devon Chill Farm (oh, actually it does have skull and crossbones on the label).

N.B. All (slightly dodgy) pics taken on iphone (which then died) as I didn’t risk the DSLR due to very inclement weather in the morning. Here are a few more… click on any pic to view the gallery…

Have you been to a food festival this year? Do you recognise anything about the food festivals you’ve visited in this description from the US (Why you should never, ever go to a food festival)? What do you think of the food festivals in Dubai?

Tomato, lentil and spinach vegetarian lasagne

September 26, 2014

Tomato lentil and spinach lasagne reccipe on

Much of my time leafing through cookbooks is about finding something to please vegetarians and meat eaters. With our family down to three (with elder teen at Uni) the cooking and eating dynamics have changed. Instead on the veggie vote being one quarter, it’s now up to a third and yes this makes a difference. I’m much less inclined to cook a separate vegetarian meal for one and a meat-focused for two.

Then there are all the individual food preferences to take into consideration. Is it difficult to find one meal that everyone really likes (not just will eat) in your house? Veggie teen has a blind-spot about tomatoes and likes her sauces smooth (I’ve given suggestions if you like a chunkier sauce).

This recipe was born out of trying to please everyone, eat at different times (I spent the whole evening watching younger teen play netball) and not spend a horrendously long time in the kitchen (masses of work on right now). My Vitamix took the strain at several points for speedier prep. There was more than enough for us for two nights – I LOVE leftovers.

I put a tray of sausages into the oven, alongside the lasagne, for 20 minutes, a good one if a crowd of carnivores and veggies are coming round for supper. Serving with a crisp green salad including some baby spinach leaves would make it perfect for me.

Tomato, lentil and spinach vegetarian lasagne

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print


  • 200g dried, red lentils (or a can of lentils)
  • bay leaf
  • olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped
  • 1 400g tin of tomatoes
  • a large handful of oven-dried tomatoes or fresh tomatoes chopped or a small tin (227g) tinned tomatoes
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped for Vitamix cooking or finely if conventional
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (or to taste)
  • 1/2 dried chilli
  • dash of Worcestershire sauce (optional)
  • 50g butter
  • 50g plain flour
  • 400g milk
  • pinch nutmeg, fresh grated
  • sea salt and black pepper
  • 500g leaf spinach, washed and tough stalks removed
  • 9 dried, green lasagne sheets, non-precook type (approx depending on the size and shape of your pan)
  • 300g Parmesan, Grana Padano or vegetarian hard cheese (grated) plus extra


  1. Heat the oven to 220 C and get out large oblong or square baking dish or lasagne dish (minimum 20cm x 20 cm)
  2. Put the dried, red lentils in a medium-sized pan with the bay-leaf and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer until cooked (about 25 minutes). Drain, remove the bay-leaf.  Skip this step if using canned lentils.
  3. Saute the onion until softened but not brown (about 5 minutes), add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Put into a Vitamix or power blender with the tinned tomatoes, carrots, oregano, chilli and Worcestershire sauce (if using). If you want a smooth sauce add the oven-dried and/or fresh tomatoes at this stage. For a chunkier sauce, stir them in at the end. Switch the Vitamix on, turn up to 10, then cook on full power for 7 minutes until the sauce is warm and smooth. Alternatively continue to simmer all the above ingredients in a pan with the onion and garlic until the carrots are tender (blend if desired). Add sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
  4. Pour sauce into a jug and rinse out the Vitamix. To make the Bechamel, melt the butter in a non-stick pan, stir in the flour and cook the paste for a few minutes. Add the milk and pour into the Vitamix adding a good sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg. Blend on high until warm, thick and silky (about minutes). Season to taste. If using a pan, add the milk a splash at a time stirring constantly until all incorporated and thickened (then add seasonings). You can also put the butter, flour and milk directly into the Vitamix and blend but I think you can still taste the uncooked flour this way.
  5. Wilt the spinach over a medium heat in the same pan you sautéed the onion. Remove and chop roughly.
  6. Stir the lentils into the tomato sauce. Spread a layer over the base of the baking dish. Place 3 lasagne sheets in a row. Spread a thin layer of Bechamel over the pasta. Sprinkle with parmesan and dot over half the chopped spinach. Repeat this using the other half of spinach. Repeat so that the last layer is Bechamel and a good sprinkling of cheese.
  7. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes until the lasagne is soft and the top is brown.

A note on making this strictly vegetarian. Animal rennet is always used in traditional Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano so find a cheese that specifically mentions it is without this. Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce is not vegetarian as it contains anchovies, but you can buy vegetarian alternatives or make your own.

What to drink?

I’m on a Rhone roll right now after my Grenache tasting plus a Rhone evening by Le Clos this week. Traditionally, the acicity of Italian reds is first choice (e.g. Chianti Classico) but the brightness of grenache blends would also work with the spiciness of the tomato.

STEAL: M. Chapoutier, Belleruche, 2013 Côtes-du-Rhône – luscious hedgerow fruits, herby, smokey and a touch of sweaty horse (this is a good thing). Great value Rhone.

SPLURGE: René Rostaing La Landonne, 2010 Côte-Rôtie  – still dreaming of this wine from the Le Clos tasting. It smells like you’ve trodden through the countryside in your wellies on a damp Autumn day – green foliage, berries and smoke. Full bodied and intense.

Thanks to Laura for reminding me to use my Vitamix for white sauce with her roasted veg lasagne recipe. I found fresh garlic in Carrefour this week – it would be perfect for Elizabeth’s grilled veggie lasagne with wild garlic pesto. Katie has similar issues with her boys about smoothness so the Vitamix takes the strain for her veggie packed lasagne. Dannii uses ricotta for a lower cal, healthier version in her roasted veg lasagne. Kellie takes all the comforting qualities of a meaty, cheesy lasagne and makes it veggie/vegan friendly and super-healthy with butternut squash and spinach. Note to self: use more nuts in veg recipes.

Do you make an effort not to eat meat e.g. meat-free Mondays? What do you serve for a mixed crowd of veggies and meat-eaters? If you are vegetarian, would you ever cook meat for friends?


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