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Jaipur – sights and sounds

February 8, 2014

Hawa MahalFrom the moment I mentioned that I was going to Rajasthan, KP kept singing “Jaipur” – to the tune of the Slumdog Millionaire dance tune, with increasing intensity and volume as the day of my departure drew near. Many of us form our opinions of the Indian sub continent from a variety of media. For me it was through the pages of many books from White Tiger, to Midnight’s Children, A Suitable Boy, The God of Small Things, Heat and Dust, Eat, Pray, Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Life of Pi, Narcopolis to Shantaram and more, plus films such as Monsoon Wedding and the aforementioned Slumdog. Through food I now count many lovely people who hail from different parts of India as friends; over 40% of residents in the UAE are Indian nationals and via Fooderati Arabia I’ve got to know a lot more about the people, cuisines and country. So with all these preconceptions in mind I headed off with two friends for a long weekend in Jaipur; now I can hardly believe that we were there for only three days and the tumultuous impressions won’t all fit into one post. So this is part one about what there is to see in Jaipur, with more to follow about shopping, where to stay, how to get there and what to eat. This is not a guide book with all the facts and figures – these are my random experiences and impressions of the sites we visited (and loads of pictures).

Jaipur is known as the pink city as in around 1876, Maharaja Ram Singh II decided to give everything a fresh coat of paint in honour of the visit of The Prince of Wales and he chose pink. It is now a regulation colour for all houses and shops although the hue changes because of light, surface, age and circumstance from rusty terracotta to delicate rose. The original capital of was in nearby Amber but the new city, including many temples and palaces was planned by Sawai Jai Singh II who laid it out on a grid system, referring to the Hindu treatise on architecture (Vastu Sastra) with wide roads, a city wall and seven gates in collaboration with two architects Vidyadar Bhattacharya and Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob. Throughout the centuries the royal families activity encouraged artists and craftsmen to move to Jaipur and it is still famed for artisan craft skills such as block printing of textiles, hand-dyeing, weaving, blue pottery and paper making.

City Palace - Jaipur

City palace

Our first port of call and feeling vulnerable as we leave our tuk tuk and approach the arch to the palace.  A snake charmer appears and we pounce with cameras, but the lid is swiftly thrown on and the cobra disappears until notes are proffered. We refuse a guide but the signs are not very helpful (Jaipur 10 city walks has very clear info to all the rooms). We meander around taking in elegant pillars, the imposing palace fascia, some museum rooms of costumes and armaments, and the marble-floored Diwan-I-Khas, a private audience hall with enormous silver vessels that Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II filled with water from the Ganges to take with him on a two week trip to England.  The Pitam Niwas Chowk which portrays the four seasons and Hindu gods is truly stunning especially the peacock arch with delicate designs and vibrant colours. Closed doors indicate the continued residence of the current Maharajah; we are still in the presence of royalty.

City Palace - Jaipur

city palacecity palace detail

Jantar Mantar

These extraordinary and ingenious  structures, listed by UNESCO,  for reading the weather, astrology, astronomy nevertheless look like an extreme skateboard park from an inner city estate. Korean tourists with made to measure face masks wander in groups. A couple of disenfranchised young men, possibly lovers, use the surroundings as a tableau backdrop to pose and display their fashionable clothing; silk voluminous drop crotch pants for one, gold trainers for the other, sharp haircuts and cheekbones in common. The instruments are still used to used to predict the intensity of monsoons; pretty amazing as they were built in the early 18th century.  It’s quite peaceful, despite the tourist hordes and feels like a garden of modern sculpture.

Janta Manta

Janta Manta

 

Hawa Mahal – the palace of the winds

The view from the road is disappointing as pictures give the impression of serenity and isolation; it is nothing of the sort. Rickshaws lurch, camels groan, hawkers pester, aromas rise up from the drains, pores, nooks and crannies and the ornate facade that I took to be pink stone from the pictures, in reality, is painted pink. However, we seek the back entrance and the real delights unfold. The view of the street below is much more alluring when viewed through the eyes of the women in purdah from behind a screen.  The lacy lattice frames, the cacophony dims, the rapidly lowering late afternoon sun bathes everything in its kinder glow. Baboons frolic on distant rooves below; we are on top of the world.  Beginning our shaky descent we hear a sudden communal gasp. The fountains have been switched on.

Hawa Mahal

Jantar Mantar visible in the background

View from Hawa Mahal

Jal Mahal – water palace

In need of revitalising after our packed first day and thinking of roof top bars looking over the city on our Istanbul trip we ask Kadir (our guide) to take us to something similar. Arriving at a clean, modern coffee bar on the top of a petrol station we realise he isn’t quite on our wavelength but glancing to the other side of the road see that it looks out onto Jal Mahal. The evening light is perfect and we’re glad of the happy accident that has brought us here now rather than the next morning as planned. Families gather near the edge of the lake and there is a constant swell and thrashing of fish which come to the surface to be fed. Sari-clad ladies are occupied in the futile action of rolling a paste into small sausages to sell as fish food; patently these beasts will eat anything.

Jal Mahal

Jal Mahal

Amber fort (also called Amer fort)

Our tuk tuk engine starts to wail as it tackles the gradient of the winding approach road to Amber.  “No overtaking” we command as Kadir indicates with his body language that he is considering passing a truck on a blind bend. Suddenly the fort appears reflected in the Maota lake below in the misty morning light and there is a snake charmers 100 metre sprint to get to us as we stop with our cameras. Walking up the cobbled approach lane, painted elephants with tourists in swaying howdahs on their backs rise up above us. Warned to keep off the elephant road by a passing guard “elephants are very hard to control and it is dangerous”, the two routes eventually merge and we are forced very close to their pounding feet.

Amber fort The fort is vast and signage not great but we resolutely eschew having a guide so just ramble about happening upon labyrinthine corridors, purdah screens, latrines (there were more than 100 throughout the fort all leading directly out into the fresh air), the famous mirror room – the Sheesh Mahal – and the king’s bedroom which has private entrances leading directly to it from the ladies’ apartments.  The scale of the place is pretty mind-blowing and we try to imagine life there in late Medieval times; secure behind walls, freezing cold in Winter, a vast army of people required to maintain the life of the court. Not being part of a group means that we find ourselves alone a few times, a nice respite from the competitive clickers. ‘The garden in the lake is closed’ says a guard placed there for the sole purpose of communicating this information – it only opens at night during the light show and there are serried rows of benches set for this purpose. We climb higher along the wall which snakes through the surrounding hills. The concrete cladding, streaked black by polution-laden precipitation lends a weird sense of Cold War era Eastern block to the hills even though the Medieval forts lower above us on higher hills. We are shadowed by a man who is following us at distance to beg; we are relieved when he gives up after twenty minutes. Our entry fee to this astonishing place as foreigners is 200 rupees each – about 2 GBP (12 AED). The charge is 25 rupees for Indians.

Amber fort

Amber fort

Amber fort

Amber fort

Amber fort

Mirror room

Amber fort

Galtha, Galta, Galtaji, Galwar Bagh or monkey temple

This has many names depending on which guide book or guide you follow. We approached from through the Galta gate. Pigs wander about the dirt rubbish-lined track, monkeys swim in a water trough. A boy selling food to give to the monkeys thrusts peanuts in our faces. Through the grinding poverty Ravi approaches dressed in an bright white cricket jumper and chinos. “Galta is my birth place” he says proudly. Nervously, we scan the monkeys and dogs that line the route for signs of rabies and climb up the winding path giving us a view over Jaipur shimmering in the haze of pollution of a million two-stroke motors. Not sure we are in the right place, I keep asking about the tanks of water from seven springs which I’ve seen in the guide book but which is not apparent in this decrepitude. Cresting the brow of the hill, which has a cluster of shabby looking shrines and equally shabby Holy men, we descend into a valley. The red-haired monkeys are everywhere and doing everything, we quickly avert our eyes from one enthusiastic couple. Ravi gives us a pep talk before we reach the temples warning us that the first one is small, we will feel uncomfortable and they will demand money. We see what he means when we are level with the entrance and refuse the invitation of the persistent Holy Man. Walking round a rank pond of water (‘for the monkeys to swim in) we look down on the first pool over a high wall topped with jagged, coiled razor wire. Apparently a prevention against further suicides. It is all fairly grim but there is enthusiastic washing going on at the bottom of the stairs.

GalthaThe lower pool is closed for washing as the water is not clean – although it has exactly the same amount of floating debris and scum as the upper pool. The once grand temples are crumbling and dotted with modern Holy paraphernalia. A piece of string is tied round our wrists – for long life – and a blob of yellow dabbed on our heads by a young, earnest ‘Holy Man'; we give money. A less reticent member of the religious community harangues our guide as we exit and I sense that this is because we avoided the Hanuman shrine, which Ravi confirms as true. We retrace our steps up the hill, taking a ‘short cut’ which thankfully avoids aforementioned pushy mystics. Ravi chats about cricket and how the monkeys often raid his house and steal things like shoes (and his brand new trainers). “They are having sex” he points out helpfully; we quickly avert our eyes.  The path is steep and hot but we are rewarded by the view of Jaipur again as we reach the top. Proudly, Ravi points out the school where he is a student; small children are helping their mother wind thread on a rickety wooden contraption in a garden; families beg from tents along the track.  The approach from the Surajpol Gate has given us a pleasant walk and a very different view from just arriving at the main entrance to the shrine. The tranquil peace of the hotel grounds has never seemed so welcoming.

Monkeys in Galtha

Hindu Temple

We’ve had an uncomfortable moment when out in the bazaar and fled to find Kadir. It’s too early to eat but we have no more appetite for shopping. He speeds through the streets to a Hindu temple – we are all too tired to notice where it is. Removing our shoes we are too nervous to leave them at the street gate in case they disappear. Intending to carry them round, disapproval makes us leave them at the door but the rest of the greeting is in kind gestures and very welcoming. It is bright, light and every surface is dazzlingly reflective. People visit the altar or shrine in the middle then do a circuit in a corridor around it, touching pictures on the wall as they go. It is tranquil to the ears and soul, if not the eyes. Our bad experience is forgotten.

This is merely one dimension of our three days in Jaipur. I felt that I could hardly blink or I would miss something. More about the sights from street level, the shopping, where we stayed, how to get about and, of course, what to eat, to follow soon.

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Celebrating with custard

February 3, 2014

Somehow I’ve been scribbling down my thoughts about food, my family life in here in Dubai and away, plus visits to UK for four whole years. Weirdly, I now can’t image life without blogging – something that my non-blogger readers might find equally weird.  The wonderful richness plus a touch of the rollercoaster it has brought to so many aspects of my life is something I wouldn’t swap for anything. No not even a custard tart.  From developing a writing style, learning how to use a proper camera (plus all the editing software) and online tools, meeting an incredible bunch of people both on and offline, it’s now part of who I am. I’m proud to wear the title food blogger, foodie or whatever other term encapsulates loving the topic of food so much you feel compelled to take pictures of it…on any occasion. With time ticking at an alarming rate until the teens fly the nest, the slightly surreal world of food blogging gives me a purpose and a network outside work for when it’ll be just KP and me. Ah, where did it all go? So true that the days are long, but the years are short. I’ve seen other friends struggle with the void that departing children leave and I hope I’ll be kept too busy for the pain of separation to bite too hard. Anyway… before we all get too maudlin’ … how to celebrate this anniversary? There’s really only one way. With custard.

Despite the title, a search for custard on this blog will be a bit spartan and something I’m determined to rectify. My love of custard continues unabated and one of my favourites is made by my Mother-in-law. Luckily it’s the easiest too. Thanks to all of you who’ve visited, read, commented and shared over these 1460 days, 48 months and 238 blog posts. You’ve been an indispensable part of the journey. And thanks to Anita for feeding me so much lovely custard and this recipe:

Microwave custard

  • Servings: 4
  • Time: 10 minutes
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 300 ml double cream (or single cream or full-cream milk)
  • 3 egg yolks, free range
  • 1 tablespoon caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cornflour
  • Vanilla extract (not flavouring)*

Method

  1. Measure the cream (or milk) into a microwave-safe jug. Heat the cream on high and bring to the boil. Keep checking as it will only take about 2 minutes (depending on the power of your microwave).
  2. Meanwhile place the egg yolks into a microwave-safe bowl. Add 1 heaped tablespoon of caster sugar plus 1 rounded teaspoon of cornflour to the egg yolks. Whisk together lightly with 2 drops of vanilla extract. (*I ran out of extract so boiled the milk with a vanilla pod and kept it in the custard until the end for a lovely vanilla seed flecked appearance).
  3. Pour in the boiling cream (or milk), stirring all the time and give it a really good whisk. Wipe the sides of the bowl with kitchen towel.
  4. Put the bowl in the microwave and heat at 80% power (or medium-high) for 20 seconds. Remove and give it a good whisk. Repeat for another 10 seconds at a time until thick and creamy. This can take anything from 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Do not overheat (but if you do and it starts to look less than smooth, remove from heat and whisk briskly).
  5. Pour into a jug and serve. If not eating immediately place a piece of cling film on the surface to stop a skin forming (unless, like me, you like the skin of the custard).

A note on ingredients in Dubai: I used four egg yolks as the ones from the Farmers’ Market are a little bit small, plus the UHT whipping cream from a carton. Tavola sells real natural vanilla without alcohol.

Serve with apple pie, apple crumble, steamed pudding, Bakewell tart, treacle tart, Christmas pudding, stewed fruit, baked apples or cold in trifle. Custard’s list of friends is endless. And what of blogging? Will I still be doing this in four years time? I hope so. Adam Roberts aka Amateur Gourmet sums it up in the last two paragraphs of (an epic) post about his 10th blogging anniversary here.  It’s “the desire to connect with a bunch of strangers over a shared enthusiasm for food and cooking” that keeps you going. You are most welcome to dine at my virtual kitchen table any time.

Where to eat and drink in London

January 29, 2014

“Oh there’s nothing to eat in London, Just get a sandwich from Pret”. I read this on a blog – no joke. I’d just returned from a couple short visits to the capital and was looking enviously at cows in fields; those lucky creatures with four stomachs. Fan of home-grown sandwich chain Pret a Manger though I am, you’d need six months to sample just a smidgeon of the exciting eats on offer. Tinkering with Samuel Johnson’s quote, “when a man is tired of food in London he’s tired of life.”
The vast amount of choices can get a bit bewildering though. London districts are like a series of villages, many with their own distinct food scene. Googling is not much help as the top sites are full of paid-for links and very overwhelming; you don’t really get the inside story.
Starting to dream of a return this year I needed a guide to some hot picks in the capital. So I trawled the brains of some people who are really in the know; food and wine bloggers in London. Massive thanks to Anthony, Fiona, Jeanne, Jeff, Kat, Rachel, Regula and Urvashi. Some are London born and bred and others have made it their home or visit often, from other parts of the UK and beyond. Read more about them further down the page. Now, are you feeling hungry? Back to the food:

Street food

Food trucks, stalls and markets are popping up all over London. I’ve tasted my way through quite a few of them at Food Blogger Connect in 2012 and 2013 and found some of the most delicious and exciting food you’ll eat in the capital. The focus on great quality ingredients is what sets these small vendors apart. They are all a bit mad and creativity doesn’t just extend to their food, but their appearance and presentation as well. I’ve eaten masses of tasty morsels from burgers made with offal (Tongue n Cheek) to freshly fried churros and food from Mauritius, Brazil, Russia and Jamaica to name a few. My very favourite has to be Belle of Bell & Brisket who as well as thrusting a meltingly, savoury, roll of home-cured salt beef into my hand (I can still taste those beefy juices as they dripped down my chin), she also tempted me to try a pickled egg for the very first time. Runners up are Funky Chicken – for the van, name and banter alone, Yasmin of Lovedesh – who set up a tripod and cauldron over a wood fire on a pavement in Battersea to cook a Bangladeshi curry from scratch, and a panini from Gurmetti. Yes an Italian sandwich can be that memorable.
Jeanne  recommends South African Grant Hawthorne’s African Volcano stall at Maltby Street Market for a variety of peri peri-infused dishes like chicken prego rolls on homemade Portuguese bread, slow-roasted pulled pork on a peri peri bap and giant flame-grilled tiger prawns. Rachel rates The Wild Game Co., Sporeboys, Kimchi Cult, The Rib Man and the irresistible Yum Bun. Urvashi’s tips include the Real Food Market on Southbank, Kerb at Kings Cross (see below) and a bit off the beaten track for Indian food would be a wander along Southall High Street for brilliant take-aways.

Ways to find street food in London:

Kerb – a directory of street traders and events. Worth browsing the traders list for the witty names alone.
Street Feast – regular street food night markets (mainly in East London).
London Street Foodie – a blog written by the Food Editor of the London Evening Standard which tracks down the best of London’s street food.
Street food carts and stalls are often a big part of markets like Exmouth Market for instance. For more market info head to my post about Borough.

The Underground Restaurant and Ms Marmite Lover

The Underground Restaurant and Ms Marmite Lover ©KerstinRodgers

Supper clubs

In many countries the best food is eaten in people’s homes – and why should London be any different? One of the pioneers of the underground restaurant scene in the capital was Kerstin Rodgers aka Ms Marmite Lover. My dates in the UK have yet to coincide with one of her legendary events but I’ve attended them vicariously via her blog and book. The themes are wildly imaginative with food to match. Check out the Maggie handbag biscuits she made for a Thatcher tea (she’s a staunch socialist) and stuffed tulips for a Midsummer night’s dream dinner.
My friend May rustles up authentic Malaysian food and you can even have supper in a wine shop (sounds pretty good to me).
Jeanne has no hesitation about her favourite. “Without a doubt The London Foodie, who does Japanese and now French supper clubs. Restaurant quality food for £40 per head. Have been twice and loved it both times.”
James Ramsden’s Secret Larder is a weekly event which sells out fast, check the website of eco chef and food waste activist Tom Hunt to locate his next The Forgotten Restaurant event, and visit Hackney to taste authentic Vietnamese food cooked by Uyen Luu – all Rachel’s recommendations. Urvashi says “I have only been to Asma Khan’s Indian Supperclub and Sabrina Ghayour’s Persian Supperclub and both were amazing. Would advise not eating for at least a week prior.”

Where to find supper clubs in London:

Find a supper club has an amazing list of around 100 supper clubs in London (plus lists for the rest of the UK and the world). It’s run on the Ning platform so you have to register to use the site but well worth it.
London pop-ups has a shorter list of supper clubs in London with good descriptions.
Edible experiences is another good lexicon of supper clubs and pop-ups.
The London Foodie (as above) reviews quite a list of supper clubs here.

Theatre land

Seeing a show in the West End is high on most people’s London to do list. And don’t worry if you just pitch up around the area between Covent Garden and Leicester Square where the streets are a buzz with restaurants and, especially compared with Dubai, the prices are reasonable. My teen and I hung out in Old Compton street which was vibrant on a warm summer’s evening and popped into Made in Italy for a wood-fired pizza before seeing Once (the food was far better than the show). However, if you’re in the know and plan ahead there are really superb places to go.
10 cases is excellent, I’ve also been to Mishkins deli which is pretty good fun.” So says Kat – both have shot to the top of my must try list.
Terroirs Wine Bar – Anthony, Jeff and Rachel all recommended this wine bar that focuses on seasonal produce and homemade charcuterie, as well as wine of course. Sounds right up my street.
J Sheekey is a fish restaurant (sustainable) that offers pre and post theatre dining. Anthony says “Only one choice here. Hop and a skip from Leicester Square station, just the best seafood from anywhere but the coast… And better than most of them!”
Great Queen Street, a gastro pub serving a British menu, also gets a recommendation from Ant. “10 mins from Covent Garden. They do rusticity with real charm; fabulous sharing plates such as 6 hour cooked shoulder of mutton (converted my wife from vegetarianism!)”
Fiona advises, “the main thing to remember is that some REALLY good restaurants do pre-theatre deals. She went to Hix Soho and had an excellent meal where the set menu was around £20 a head. But, the flip to that is that a lot of places don’t offer reservations.
Small chains can deliver good value, as Jeanne says, “The Med Kitchen (on Old Compton Street) is cheap and no nonsense. My favourite for good value is Cote – a chain of French brasseries that does good, traditional French.” Both do good value pre- and post-theatre menus.
Not theatreland per se but if you are taking in some Shakespeare at The Globe (or the newly opened Sam Wanamaker Playhouse), plan to dine next door at The Swan At The Globe. Jeanne rates it as “the best view at the price in London, lovely room, great food.”
Rachel’s choices are Gordon’s Wine Bar – the oldest wine bar in London with some reassuringly down to earth pub grub and decent wine list; Dishoom (Covent Garden branch) – a Bombay Cafe that I’m now itching to visit; Brasserie Zedel – a Parisian-style brasserie with a historic Art Deco interior, serving a la carte and prix fixe French menus; and Quo Vadis, a legendary restaurant and club from the 1920’s, now serving modern British food and a daily menu (available on line) with Chef Jeremy Lee in charge of the kitchen. A lovely restaurant selling South Indian food called Woodlands in Piccadilly is Urvashi’s choice.

tea at Timberyard

Tea at Timberyard – but read on for some much more lavish options

Afternoon tea

Despite the myriad coffee bars, afternoon tea is a British ritual that shows no signs of dying out and thank goodness for that.

Starting with traditional favourites, Fortum & Mason is meant to be super (thanks Rachel) and if it’s good enough for HM the Queen to reopen it… . Worth also noting if travelling by Eurostar that Fortnums have opened a tea salon in St Pancras railway station. The Dorchester and The Ritz (set in the beautiful Palm Court tea salon) are both on Kat’s list and the latter is first choice of Ant’s other half. Kat also recommends Sketch – very quirky, Alice-in-Wonderland-like surroundings and The Orangery in Kensington Gardens (more Royal connections) which also gets Regula’s vote. Across the road from Kensington Palace is the Milestone Hotel which serves another sumptuous tea fit for Royalty (and Jeanne); Queen Victoria hosted her tea receptions here.

Urvashi chooses The Langham for a traditional and a classic afternoon tea, St Martins hotel in Covent Garden is more modern and quirky, Mandarin Oriental is again classic but modern, The Pudding Parlour at the Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair is a stunning ‘must visit’, and Laduree in Harrods for some lovely French classics.
Less rarified and more contemporary is The Modern Pantry which certainly takes the tea drinking part very seriously (see menu). It’s Rachel’s pick “for value, as well as delicious food and lovely crockery!”

You could be lucky enough to time your visit when Rachel’s friends, Milli and Victoria put on their “wonderful – if a little sporadic – afternoon tea pop ups overlooking the river”.

There are a few more tea suggestions from Ant’s friend here.

Drinking

Moving onto to something a little stronger, there are a few places I’d like to investigate. Vinopolis is a ‘wine attraction’ not far from Borough Market on the South Bank. You can book guided wine tasting every day but some of their special tasting events sound intriguing. As a devotee of ‘Mother’s ruin’ I’ve watched the re-emergence of gin as a trendy drink in the UK from afar, and tried to sample some of the new exciting gins from small distillers. The Ginstitute sounds utterly beguiling. And I’ve wanted to take a cocktail masterclass at Rules (the oldest restaurant in London) ever since I read this. Who’s coming with me?
Rachel recommends Sager & Wilde and Anthony thinks that it is just the most amazing wine bar in London (read his review), enjoys cocktails at Charlotte Street Hotel, and Gordon’s Wine Bar gets another mention for tradition.
Kat’s list is eclectic and intriguing: Drakes Tabanco – is dedicated to serving sherry from the barrel and other wines of Jerez; Bar Pepito  is another sherry bar dedicated to the food and drink of Andalucia;  Berners Tavern – highlights are a beautiful setting, the chance to play pool in the bar afterwards and an interesting cocktail that contained pickle juice!; New Street Wine Shop – a wine shop with expert sommeliers, many tasting events and where you can also enjoy some cheese and charcuterie; Planet of the Grapes sounds like the perfect way to enjoy good wine out of the house. They stock over 450 wines, plus wines by the glass. You add a flat £10 fee to any bottle regardless of the retail price to drink it in the bar; 28-50 - all three venues of this wine workshop and kitchen sound like tremendous fun; Charlottes in Chiswick – which I notice holds a regular gin school; and El Camion – Mexican restaurant and bar where they do a lot of good things with tequila.
I’ve sipped a cocktail with Jeanne at 101 here in Dubai, but in London she favours Harry Gordon’s Bar in Selfridges and Ember Yard in Berwick Street.

With an open fire crackling in the grate and a bartender fixing your favourite drink it feels like private residence of a most beloved, eccentric and indulgent great aunt – we call her Wilhelmina.

I couldn’t resist quoting this from the website of Zetter Town House. Everything about it sounds exquisite. And while I’m quoting, Bar Nightjar says of itself  ‘a hidden slice of old-school glamour on the fringes of Shoreditch’. Both these gems recommended by Rachel. For traditional London pubs, she likes The Royal Oak and The Carpenter’s Arms (both local to her in E2) and Urvashi also thinks her local the King’s Head in Winchmore Hill is brilliant.

Trends

You know what to expect from other European cities noted for their food (like Paris and Rome) but London is always changing and adapting to new trends. One of the new waves of eating crazes is for superior fast food. I can’t begin to understand why anyone would queue for Shake Shack. Thank goodness Anthony is on hand to choose a few of his favourites:
#1 Honest Burger – Soho – go to the restaurant, they book you in on iPad and call you when your table us ready. Burgers are sublime – cooked to perfection, great buns and chips. Beetroot coleslaw also superb.
#2 Patty & Bun – be prepared to queue for 30 mins but you won’t be disappointed. As well as fine burgers, the confit chicken wings are awesome.
#3 Meat Liquor – be prepared to queue again. Burgers very good but the star of the show are the deep fried onion rings and deep fried pickles. This place is very dark and just a bit too cool for school!

Personally I’ve followed the foodie antics of someone who was completely ahead of the game – Daniel from Young and Foodish. If there is even a hint that you might visit London, sign up now to receive news of his next Burger Monday or Spag Wednesday event.

Foodies top picks

I’ll let the foodies explain:

  • Anthony: The Tapa Room is my go-to place. They don’t take bookings but Peter Gordon’s fusion food is the way cuisines should be crossed. Plus an amazing all New Zealand wine list.
    Kat: Berners Tavern (as above), Pied a Terre (Michelin Star restaurant in Charlotte street) Duck & Waffle (the highest restaurant in London) Roka (contemporary Japanese robatayaki cuisine) and The Ledbury (two Michelin stars).
    Jeanne: My fave best value lunch in London by a country mile is Club Gascon in Smithfield – £25 for 3 courses of uttter French gorgeousness (love the plating and the crockery!); and as you know I am a huge fan of Vinoteca Farringdon (for obvious reasons!) Editor’s note: the obvious reason is because she met me for lunch there and I absolutely loved it too.
    Rachel: Maltby Street over Borough Market. Crockery from Anthropologie. Check out the Hansen & Lydersen salmon smokery. Try to infiltrate The Food Room and Library in Eton Square. Food at 52 for great cooking classes. Early morning trips to Billingsgate are always worth the effort – if only for the bacon & salmon sandwiches. Bagels on Brick Lane, and curry at Tayyabs. Support young cooks with lunch in the Escoffier Room at Westminster Kingsway college – dreadful service, but seven course taster menu for £25!
  • Regula: Gauthier Soho (fairly pricey but worth it); Duck & Waffle (worth it for view, also pricey); Viajante (pricey but worth it, as a chef they might find it interesting); Alyn Williams (great food, £65 for tasting menu); Pollen St. Social  (lunchtime £30 for 3 courses); Bob Bob Ricard (service beautiful, £40/head-ish); Pizarro (beautiful food)
    Zucca  (really good Italian food, I had a lovely meal there); Polpo small plates; Bocca Di Lupo my fav Italian, also has a gelato bar; Bone Daddies Ramen Bar; Ceviche Peruvian Kitchen (very nice); St John for nose to tail cooking.
  • Urvashi: I love Sushi Samba in the Heron Tower in Liverpool street – just amazing food and lovely atmosphere inside and outside on the terrace plus great views over London; Dishoom – homely for me when I want a quick spicy nibble at any time of day, outside London in Finchley is Two Brothers fish restaurant which is a must visit in the area, also Cafe Japan in Golders Green is awesome for proper Japanese food and ambience of an izakaya. Sakonis in Wembley is a must-visit vegetarian eatery which is very basic and very budget; the Swaminarayan Mandir (temple) in Neasden is a wonderful sight to go and see but the veggie restaurant there is pretty amazing too. The Hare Krishna restaurant Govinda’s on Soho Street is a top budget veggie eaterie too and Taboon in Golders Green does the best falafel in the world!
  • Fiona: I might add in a ‘lunch’ category – I gather that London is unique in great lunch deals (I went to L’atelier de Joel Robuchon which is one example and the manager there told me that the special lunch menu is only on offer in London) – here’s a little article I did.

Rachel agrees: Lunch menus are the key to trying great food at decent prices, for example The Ledbury, Dabbous and Clove.

* I noticed that Pied a Terre lunch is 2 courses for £27.50 – which they claim is the best value Michelin star menu in London.

Food experiences

The first thing I recommend to visitors to Dubai is  Frying Pan Food Adventure, so why not try a food tour in London? Eating London Food Tours sounds just the thing, reviewed here (enthusiastically) by Bintu.

Jeanne’s favourite recent foodie experience in London HAS to be Aveqia’s cooking classes and meals.
Rachel has never done one as she prefers exploring by herself but did point me in the direction of a fascinating site called Darling Collective full of all sorts of experiences, which offers a foraging walk in several London Parks as well as supper clubs, wine tasting, cocktail making and cookery classes (also see Food in 52). I’d love to do a tea tasting with these people too; Postcard Teas specialise in fine teas from small farms.

Although a traditional restaurant experience, the concept behind both Fifteen and The Brigade is altruistic, offering disadvantaged and vulnerable people catering apprenticeships, giving them tools for a brighter future.  I can vouch for a nice atmosphere and great cocktails at Fifteen and there’s a review of Brigade by Rachel here.

sign in pret

Chains

So apart from a half decent sandwich at Pret, is it possible to enjoy a good meal at one of the many chains of restaurants that are dotted around London?

Family friendly Leon (described as serving ‘naturally fast food) and Chiquito – a Mexican Bar and Grill – are the two new ones that stand out for Fiona, while Kat mentions Barbecoa (not a chain so much as part of the Jamie Oliver empire). Rachel rates Hawksmoor (steakhouse) Yalla Yalla (Beirut street food) and Frae (frozen yoghurt) and adds “Not so much a chain – but all the Renaissance pubs are lovely, and all the Russell Norman joints are generally fun (Polpo, Mishkins, Spuntino, also am a big fan of Brawn/Terroirs/Soif which are all run by the same people – as I think are Salt Yard/Opera Tavern. Urvashi likes Pho for Vietnamese, Wahaca for Mexican, The Real Greek for Greek and Spaghetti House for Italian.

Cafes

When seeing the sights of London, it’s so important to know where you can revive yourself at regular intervals. My personal choice is for a good cup of tea and a bowl of soup is in the basement of the National Portrait Gallery – so handy for Trafalgar Square. I also enjoyed the casual, relaxing atmosphere of Timberyard (the Old Street branch) which is very wifi and lap-top friendly.
Fiona says there are good cafes in or near most tourist hot spots now. Benugo is one example and Peyton and Byrne another; both offer really good ‘British’ food with a twist, in major galleries, museums and attractions.
For breakfast, if in need of a really good bacon sandwich, go to The English Restaurant in Spitalfields – thanks Kat. Whereas Jeanne finds it hard to resist the bowls of hot chocolate at Le Pain Quotidian and Regula votes for the Breakfast Club.
I can’t believe we’ve got this far without mentioning Ottolenghi – but it’s on Rachel’s cafe recommendations along with The Modern Pantry, Caravan, Climpson & Sons, Monmouth, and Rochelle Canteen. One day Urvashi’s Botanical Garden Cafe will be on this list but for now I she recommends Lock 7 Cycle Cafe on Regent’s Canal (and also Caravan).

Shopping and food hubs

Beginning with the famous shops, Harrods Food Halls and Fortnum & Mason are worth going just to ogle at the extravagant displays and Aladdin’s caves of culinary delights. Selfridges Food Hall is also worth a visit and Urvashi reckons the prices for some things (e.g. truffles) are very competitive.

Neal’s Yard Dairy, La Fromagerie (read more about founder Patricia here) and Ginger Pig butcher made nearly everyone’s list – the latter two have branches in Moxon Street just off Marylebone High Street, a little food hub in itself.

Rachel recommends  The Whisky Exchange which gives me another reason to visit Vinopolis (it’s inside), also Books for Cooks (legendary book shop) The Japan Centre (for Japanese ingredients) and Turner & George Meat Merchants. Visit Wembley and Southall for Indian grocers says Urvashi, and Atari Ya in Finchley, Golders Green and Acton for Japanese groceries.

Markets are a must and I’d recommend Borough Market for the hustle and bustle and the restaurants that surround it. London residents have started to favour other markets as less expensive and not crammed with tourists – Broadway Market, Maltby Street Market, Spitalfields, Whitecross Street and Exmouth Market rank highly. Brockley Market gets a mention for nice villagey weekend market. For more market links visit my Borough post.

Some areas have become food destinations such as Northcote Road in Battersea, there’s masses to discover in East London (as Rachel has shown), also written about here by my glamorous friend Amanda. The area around Farringdon Road is well worth exploring, including the aforementioned Vinoteca, St John and more such as The Quality Chop House. Urvashi’s found Bermondsey High street is pretty cool to walk up and down for little cafes and two Jose Pizarro places, and Dean and Wardour street for the same reason with Gail’s Bakery, The Hummingbird Bakery, Paul A. Young chocolate shop and Princi on same road you are in cake and choc lane! Fiona Beckett delights in East Dulwich and for everything food-related about Peckham there is only one source worth visiting.

Websites and apps

I downloaded a couple of apps but there weren’t much help so would love to know if anyone has found a good one. If you are into burgers and pizza the Young and Foodish app looks useful although I haven’t tried it.

Rachel pointed me in the direction of these sites:

This is My Kingdom has a nice archive of good places to go in London too.

Contributors

A massive thank you to these lovely people. Consider your brains well and truly picked.

Chief eaters

Anthony Davies Confessions of a Wine Geek, Fiona Maclean London Unattached, Jeanne Horak-Druiff Cooksister, Jeff Burrows FoodWineClick, Kat Wiggins The Wine Kat, Rachel Smith The Food I Eat, Regula Ysewijn Miss Foodwise and Urvashi Roe The Botanical Baker. Please do go and visit their blogs for even more great info on eating and drinking.

Of course we must have left something out. What’s your favourite place to eat or drink in London?

Where to eat and drink in London

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The lonely courgette

January 25, 2014

Stuffed courgetteOh poor, little, stuffed courgette. Why are you all alone?

Here you are with all the other courgettes, fresh from the farmers’ market, being stuffed:

courgettes

And here are more veg, all stuffed and ready to cook:

Stuffed veg

And more:

Stuffed veg recipe from www.mycustardpie.com-2

So why just a picture of just you; a solitary, cooked, stuffed veg?

Is it because you’re not so pretty once you’ve simmered away with tomatoes, spices and sometimes lamb chops, becoming tender, absorbing the juices? Perhaps.

Or is it because stuffed vegetables are irresistible and possibly the most delicious way of eating vegetables on this planet?

Stuffed courgettes*

Ingredients for the filling

9 medium courgettes, long or round
400g minced lamb or beef
180g short-grain rice (I used half Arborio and half Basmati because that’s what I had)
2 tablespoons tomato purée
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon chilli powder
1 large bunch of fresh coriander, leaves picked and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 level teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)
freshly ground black pepper

Ingredients for the sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil
6 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons (or one whole carton) tomato purée
2 x 400g cans of chopped tomatoes (or 1 kilo fresh tomatoes chopped)
25g unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Approx 600ml water

Method

1. Mix all the ingredients for the filling together in a bowl (it’s easiest to use your hands to make sure it’s well combined).

2. Wash and dry the courgettes. Slice the stem end off to make a lid and scoop out the middle leaving a thin layer as a wall. If using round courgettes use a melon baller, if long use an apple corer. Use the courgette flesh for another recipe (e.g. fritters or courgette bread or cake).

3. Stuff the courgettes with the filling. Don’t pack too firmly and leave at least 5 mm clear of the top as it will expand as the rice cooks.

4. In a wide pan with a tight-fitting lid (enamelled cast iron is perfect) heat the olive oil over a medium heat and sauté the garlic cloves until they start to change colour but do not go brown. Stir in the tomato purée and cook for a couple of minutes, then add the chopped tomatoes, butter and sea salt. Stir until combined and the sauce starts to bubble.

5. Remove from the heat and gently place your stuffed courgettes into the sauce replacing their ‘lids’ (do not press down on them, they just need to balance). Put back onto the heat and bring back to a simmer. Pour in enough water to nearly cover the courgettes (I rinse out the tomato cans with the water before I pour it in). Bring up to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently with the lid on for about 45 minutes. Check about halfway through that it is not drying out and add a little more boiling water if necessary. Test that the courgette is cooked with a small knife – it should be soft enough to pierce easily but not mushy.

6. Serve hot or warm with bread if you like (this is a one-pot meal).

*I use a method based on how my Mother-in-law cooks stuffed veg but referred to Claudia Roden and Nadia Sawalha‘s recipes as a guide for quantities – who could resist a cookbook called Stuffed vine leaves saved my life…certainly not me).

Do you have a favourite veg to stuff? Has stuffed veg ever saved your life?

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Ever changing seasons of vegetable soup

January 17, 2014

Thursday afternoon is ‘clear out the fridge time’. I find it satisfying to take everything out, assess the remains of the week and have a tidy up. There is one single-minded purpose; not to waste a single thing. Plus it’s a test of ingenuity. How to transform the last of my weekly farmers’ market haul into something delicious that everyone will want to eat (and to make room for tomorrow’s new bounty). Vegetables are sorted and chopped – it’s always easier to start thinking with a knife in your hand rhythmically cutting onto a wooden board.  There is rarely anything that needs to be discarded because it’s past its best – even lettuce – because the veg is picked on the morning of the market

This week I made a soup, started while drinking my first cup of tea of the weekend (Friday, Saturday here in the United Arab Emirates) and finished off after I got back from the market.  You might call it refrigerator soup but that never sounds very appetising to me. The recipe is a vague one, I neither weighed nor measured, but here’s a sort of recipe if you need one:

Farmers market soup

Farmers’ Market vegetable soup

Heat a splash of olive oil in a really large pot and soften chopped onion, celery and fennel. When it has lost its crunch and looks a bit golden, tip in a lot of chopped fresh tomatoes and raise the heat. Skins go in as well – life’s too short to skin a tomato when you’re making a rustic soup. After a while the tomatoes lose their shape and sort of melt down.

Boil a kettle and add about the same volume of water as tomatoes and a couple of good vegetable stock cubes (Marigold Swiss Vegetable Bouillon) and a piece of Parmesan rind (straight from the freezer). Once back to the boil throw in some shredded green cabbage (about a quarter), a scant handful of small pasta (orzo in this case) and plenty of green beans and cook for about 10 minutes until tender.

Serve with good fresh bread (in my case Pain de Campagne made with organic flour by Baker & Spice and bought at the market), a grinding of black pepper, and some fresh herbs. I used curly parsley from the garden.

Reading about tackling food waste this week, I like Charmian Christie’s idea of calling them ‘seconds’ rather than leftovers.  It’s also a liberating way of cooking; I find it easier to experiment with flavours than if I’ve just gone out and bought a lot of expensive ingredients.

After a busy morning at the market this soup was the perfect lunch to come home to.

What’s your favourite way of using up odds and ends of vegetables?

My friend Ren Behan’s Simple and in Season event is back on and I’m so glad I’m able to join this month. It’s an indication that I’m on track with my resolution to write more about what we actually shop and eat for at home (rather than eating out events). P.S. I’ve just found out about another event that’s spot on too: Extra Veg hosted by my dear friend Helen of Fuss Free Flavours and Utterly Scrummy. This also fits into an amazing long-running event called ‘No Croutons Required‘ which showcases vegetarian soups and salads.

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B and B in Bexhill – a jaunt to East Sussex

January 10, 2014

Bexhill on seaBexhill-on-sea was the site of the second death in the A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie, and that was all I knew about the place. It was many hours drive from Cheltenham – but I’d bought tickets for a concert last July due to my younger daughter’s enthusiasm for Regina Spektor.  Flashing through the villages of Kent on the way there, the winding country lanes were dotted with fruit stalls of strawberries, raspberries and cherries, befitting a county known as the garden of England.

We (my sister and the teens) were given a warm welcome at the slightly old-fashioned, but spotlessly clean Park Lodge Bed & Breakfast (run by Liverpudlians). It was very central, next to a lovely park and one street back from the sea front. We strode out to explore, noting the queue at Di Paolo’s tea room for homemade gelati.

The town has seen better days and its obscurity is underlined by the fact there was not a branded chain name to be seen. Too sleepy and run-down for multi-national coffee houses to consider. However, the faded nature was not depressing or threatening and Bexhill must have been a hot spot at some point to justify the building that dominates the seafront. A jewel of a 1930’s Modernist building – The De La Warr Pavilion. We went in for a cuppa and the tea was almost blown out of our cups by the wind on the narrow outside terrace; very amusing.

Even more entertaining for all the wrong reasons was the exhibition curated by Turner prize winner Mark Leckey called The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things.  I am well-known in my family for my enthusiasm and will find an inspiring angle about nearly anything, especially if it’s related to art. Maybe I was in the wrong mood for this, but it left me cold. Stone cold. I felt it was such a random collection of really terrible things. There was no beauty for sure, but I didn’t even find it thought-provoking. To quote my teens “the objects weren’t odd enough to mean anything” and “they were too mundane to provoke any reaction bar confusion.” It was almost as if that was the point for me; the universal inaccessibility of dumb objects arranged in a big white space. The only thing that remains in our consciousness is a video of ‘jelly bean’ man which was like ‘Telly Tubbies on acid’ (another teen quote). I did love the sculpture on the roof because they juxtaposed with the incredible sea view and you had to fight the wind to stay upright.

Eating out in Bexhill on Sea

Trattoria Italiana

….is the best place to eat by far if the hoards of happy diners filling the place is anything to go by. I can only go on impressions as it was fully booked from 6pm in the evening. It was the only place that wouldn’t look out of place in more affluent town and there was a terrific buzz about it.

De La Warr Pavilion Café Bar and Kitchen

Avoid eating here if there is a big event. They really couldn’t cope on the night of the Regina concert and people were waiting for over an hour. However the food was simple, well-cooked hot and good from a limited menu for that evening – ‘Brighton Rock’ battered local fish served with seasoned chips, pea puree and homemade tartare sauce, roasted tomato and olive pasta and homemade pizza, served in a clean open space by nice, friendly, young staff with the best view. The menu changes often and ranges from homemade sausages to tagines plus it’s licensed.

Sawasdee Thai

…looked bright, clean, modern and welcoming (I’m afraid the Nepalese restaurant opposite didn’t). Closed on the day we were there or it would have been our next choice. Well reviewed on Trip Advisor too.

Di Paolo’s Restaurant

…go there for their homemade ice-cream.

Tea Beside the Sea

A charming shabby chic tea room with a great selection of homemade cakes and a fantastic view as it’s inside the colonnade right on the beach below the pavilion.

Things I liked about Bexhill on Sea

Walking along the beach early in the morning and this selfie.

me and my sister

The blocks of retirement flats named after Caribbean islands.

Miles of beach huts, some ramshackle and labyrinthine, some resembling garages, many unused.

The old, red brick rowing club building, now sadly in decline (although the club itself thrives).

Small wind-swept dogs being walked along the pebble beach.

Modern planting and driftwood-inspired landscaping along the front (promenade?)

Egerton Park, next to our B&B, which had an outdoor gym: such a brilliant idea.

The beautiful clean lines of De La Warr Pavilion beautifully restored as an arts centre (narrowly saved from becoming a JD Weatherspoons). Good venue for a concert too (my daughter loved Regina).

St Mark’s church, Little Common which we found on our way out of the town. We dashed in out of the rain and a warden opened the church, leaving us alone for a peaceful time admiring the stained glass and the frescoes.

bexhill on sea

Where we could have gone next:

Hastings – Famous for the battle, it has more tourist attractions than Bexhill including ruins of a castle, an abbey, an aquarium, and a shingle beach called The Slade which has the largest fleet of beach-launched fishing boats in Europe.

Lamb House, Rye - I longed to go here, not because Henry James lived there but because E.F. Benson did. Miss Mapp‘s house Mallards was modelled on it and the town of Tilling based on Rye.

Where we did go next:

After loading up with bags of fresh cherries from a market stall, we set off for Bodium Castle. More about this to follow very soon.

I don’t know the South East of England very well. Which other faded gems should I visit?

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Mystery tour

January 7, 2014
Kvevri or qvevri

Kvevri or qvevri in the snow. Image: Living Roots

Being brought up as a Catholic, one of the tales from the Bible we were taught very often was the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. With or without an omnipotent figure involved, the transformation of the watery juice of grapes into intriguing alcohol is pretty mysterious. The influence that the soil, bedrock, roots, climate, grape variety, micro-organisms in the air, the material of the containers, the phases of the moon (if you believe some people) and many other elements, all combine, like the ingredients of an alchemist, to produce thousands and thousands of wines and vintages which have different subtle effects on the senses, mind, body and soul. These permutations in combination with each drinker’s unique palate means that until you actually sip a glass of wine, even if you think you know what to expect, the exact aromas, flavours and textures will remain a mystery until actually experienced. It’s what makes wine so beguiling to some and bewildering to others.

The wines at the wedding in Galilee would have been stored in large clay urns; a little farther North-East on the other side of Turkey, wine-making in urns is still in practise, in fact the Georgian winemaking method of fermenting grapes in earthenware, egg-shaped vessels called qvevri (or kvevri) has been added to the UNESCO world heritage list.

Understanding orange wines

Great image about understanding orange wines by wakawakwinereviews.com

Ever since I read about Georgia (here, here and here) I’ve been longing to visit. A unique Eastern Mediterranean cuisine, a traditional way of life, the markets, the hiking, the monasteries …. and, of course, the wine. It’s a place still off most people’s radar; everyone I’ve mentioned it to thinks it’s part of Russia and while modernisation of cities and winemaking is taking place at fairly rapid pace, old ways are valued too. While many vineyards in Europe are turning back to natural wine making, in Georgia they never stopped, and have been producing it in the same way for 8,000 years.

When I mention to friends that I’m going to Georgia, I have to qualify it with “not the one in the US”. Intriguingly, the state of Texas was once located near the country of Georgia prior to the earth’s plates separating into our modern day continents. Even more mysteriously the most well-known Georgian red grape variety Saperavi, and a Texan grape Lenoir have many similarities even though they are from different vine species.

GeorgiaAnd yes, I am going to Georgia at last, in March of this year, to attend the International Wine Tourism Conference in the capital Tbilisi. With speakers from Georgia, Italy, Uruguay, the US and India they’ll be an interesting perspective on making and marketing wines from many different parts of the world, as well as lots of tasting. After the conference I’ll be seeing different parts of the country, tasting the local food and visiting many winemakers too.  Someone from the group worked out we’d get to taste over 17 new (to us) grape varieties.  No mystery as to how I’m feeling about this.

This is my entry for the 6th Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC6), the theme of Mystery set by The Drunken Cyclist this time. Check out the rules deadlines and other entries here and here. I’ve come in well under the general 1000 word limit but as I far exceeded this in other entries I’m hoping I’ve got some words in the bank so to speak.

Monthly wine writing challenge

P.S. If this all makes you as excited about Georgia and the International Wine Tourism conference as I am you can register here.
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