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Saturday night at the Kemeralti bazaar in Izmir

March 1, 2017

“Beş! Beş!” the fish seller brayed in his cracked bellowing voice to indicate the slender silver slivers in the basins before him were five Turkish lira per kilo. It’s coincidence that the Turkish word for five almost rhymes with fish.  He served a procession of buyers while juggling his chain-smoking deftly, a cigarette hanging from his lips and dangling precariously over his wares.

Strolling the street of Izmir in Turkey, I’d lagged behind to capture yet another slightly decaying house or intriguing sign in the lanes. Rounding the corner I was struck by a cacophony of voices as people weaved in and out of the narrow passageway edged by food shops and stalls, the latter illuminated by fluorescent spiral bulbs making the colours of the food look particularly intense.

There is no doubt that nose-to-tail eating is alive and well in Izmir as the butcher’s shop windows displayed tripe, liver, lungs and intestines alongside the more traditional cuts. Plastic basins of spices weren’t piled high like the tourist shops but filled with just enough to keep them fresh. The fish stall men leaned over to spray their stock with water while haggling with the teeming throng of customers. Saturday night is shopping night in Izmir and we were in the thick of things in Havra Street at the Kemeraltı Bazaar.

My group all touted cameras as we were hot footing it from the World Tourism Forum in Istanbul and now as guests of Visit Izmir. Our presence wasn’t just tolerated, we were completely ignored. Under a cloak of invisibility we skulked and then moved closer with our lenses as men concentrated on their ritual ablutions around the fountains beside the 17th Century Hadji Hüseyin or Sadirvan Mosque.  It’s a timeless scene which has been repeated for centuries (photographic equipment aside!).

Winding deeper into the bazaar, I found a courtyard dedicated to food next to the main entrance to the 16th Century Hisar mosque. A boy ladled hot soup from a dangling steaming cauldron suspended from a tripod, chestnut sellers vied for business and people bustled in and out for evening prayer. Near the side door of the mosque  is the entrance to one of eight synagogues which remain in Kemeraltı, still in use from descendents of another ancient community.  Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic Jews made Izmir their home after fleeing those countries at the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s. At its peak there was a cluster of 34 synagogues built in the medieval Spanish architectural style, uniquely preserved in some today. Members of this community still speak a version of ancient Spanish called Ladino; their heritage made a big contribution to Izmir cuisine including the local favourite  boyoz, a baked round pastry bun flavoured with tahini.  At this time of early evening the doors to the synagogues were bolted shut, the inhabitants intent on a different ritual to their neighbours.

The sky visible through the narrow lanes started to turn pink throwing the tower of the mosque into relief above the roofs of the shops. A hawker in a braided waistcoat wheeled a trolley of flourescent liquid which he whirled around a stick in multi-coloured strands to be eaten carefully, a form of melted sweets. I followed a family into a chess shop packed with boards in painted boxes with ornate pieces of all sizes. The scent of freshly ground coffee drew me on, past a huge spit with a round of skewered meat roasting horizontally over flame, to a shop with an enormous pneumatic plunger pounding up and down to grind the beans.

We all gathered at a coffee shop to test the local brew – Turkish coffee. (aka fincanda pişen Türk kahvesi or Turkish coffee boiled in the cup). Finely ground coffee is mixed with water in a long-handled pot (cezve) which is nestled into a bed of hot sand. The coffee is stirred as the water starts to simmer, then poured into small cups. A thick layer of coffee ‘sludge’ remains in the cup once you have finished drinking and there’s a tradition of fortune telling around this. We had a go ourselves,  apparently the coffee should be drunk only from one side of the cup. You place the saucer on top of the cup and make a wish, then hold the covered cup at chest level and turn it anti-clockwise a few times. Then turn the cup upside down onto the saucer and leave to cool; some people place a coin on top to hasten the process and to ward off bad omens. When cool, the cup is removed and then shapes formed interpreted by the fortune teller (this is called tasseography).

Our little cups came with a piece of dried fruit on the side, but our guides appeared with Sambali, a street food originally from Syria, which is really popular in Izmir. It’s a semolina cake, drenched with syrup, topped with a nut and sandwiched together with a type of clotted cream. Just the thing we needed before a big supper. The Kemerelti maker of this is quite famous.

Trays of tea in hourglass-shaped glasses were being passed around too and then some traditional sherbet arrived, a mix of flower extracts, fruit or herbs with sugar and water. It’s quite weak to taste and not to my palate but is a legendary drink especially during the heat of the summer and offered to guests. We tasted black mulberry which is a particular favourite in Izmir.

Our guide, more intent on history than photo opportunities, then mentioned casually that there was a good view from the upper level of the Kızlarağası Hanı, the Ottoman era kervansaray (caravansarai) which we were sitting next to. Hurrying through the domed arches lined with tourist shops, I found the stairway at the rear and was soon gazing out at the minarets of the Hisar Mosque from the open balcony, thinking how much I would have like to have caught the sunset.  The atmosphere of this market took me back to a Friday night in old Damascus, where you feel like you are treading in the footsteps of medieval travellers. One more good excuse to return to this captivating bazaar that has one foot firmly in the past, where you can still find echoes of the silk road.

The view from upstairs

Plan your trip to Kemeralt1

StaySwissotel Buyuk Efes is bright and comfortable with lovely grounds and some impressive local and international modern art including an Antony Gormley sculpture. Easy walking distance to the Agora and bazaar.

Location –  we started our wanderings by entering the street across the road from the Agora or Roman market place ruins. It stretches over a large area but you can navigate by looking for the towers of the main mosques which lie at its centre.

Eating and drinking – There are many local specialities – more information about the local cuisine of Izmir here. You can also do a food tour organised by Culinary Backstreets (I road-tested one previously in Istanbul and it was excellent).

Synagogues – many of the synagogues of Kemeralt1 are open for visitors. If you have a guide they may be able to recommend the best ones. There are more formal in-depth tours of Jewish heritage sites available too.

Thanks to Visit Izmir for hosting me as a guest for the tour of Izmir (with accommodation at Swissotel). More useful information can be found on their website.

I was in Turkey as part of the World Tourism Forum with BloggerCasting and met some incredible people. One group went to Edirne – another beautiful part of the country. Read ‘Captivated by Edirne/Adrianople Thrace‘ by Marysia on Travel Affairs and ‘Things to do in Edirne‘ by Cheryl.

Do you have a favourite market somewhere in the world? What’s the most unusual thing you’ve brought back?

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The food and drink rituals of famous authors

February 25, 2017

food-and-drink-rituals-of-top-authorsAs someone who spends a lot of their life at a desk, tapping out words on a keyboard, I relate to the solitary aspect of a writer’s life. What fuels me? Endless cups of tea, partly because it necessitates a wander downstairs which restores the blood flow to the brain and less edifying parts of the body.  I’m quite strict about food, with porridge for breakfast and nothing else until lunchtime. After a particularly successful day, making a gin and tonic at sundown (there has to be a reward for early dusk) is calming, satisfying and refreshing, putting a liquid full stop to the day.

Ahead of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (3rd – 11th March 2017) I asked a handful of authors about their own food and drink rituals. I questioned them about what they eat and drink during the writing process and whether they have any rituals or necessities (tea and biscuits every hour for instance).  I was also interested to know which fictional meal they would like to have been present at (or perhaps would like to avoid)? Here are their answers:

 

James Naughtie reveals food and drink writing ritualsJames Naughtie

While writing I find that my body clock, and the timing of the life, go haywire. So the answer is: there’s no plan for eating and drinking. I admire discipline, but have very little.

My writing ritual is to try to wake very early and get three hours in while everything is quiet. That’s it.

Moby Dick is one of my favourite novels. There’s an entire chapter on eating clam chowder as the hunt for whales in the Atlantic. My problem is I think I could exist on clam chowder but never kill a whale. So, no.

James Naughtie presented the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 for 21 years. His lyrical but authoritative Aberdeenshire accent springs into my mind as I type his name and I could go to his Lit Fest session just to listen to his voice. He has interviewed many of the most notable people in recent history and an award-winning author he has written about politics in London and Washington, and more recently fiction.

Book James Naughtie’s Lit Fest sessions here.

Alan Titchmarsh reveals food and drink writing ritualsAlan Titchmarsh

I write in the morning and tend to have a glass of water or a cup of tea with my breakfast, then I write until 10.30 or 11am and my reward is a mug of ground coffee with a teeny bit of sugar!
I have a restorative cup of Lapsang tea in the middle of the afternoon (no sugar!) – and trying not to have biscuits!
I’d love to have participated in the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ -the description of that steaming goose makes my mouth water!

As a horticulturist, Alan Titchmarsh was a constant on television when I was growing up via things like Gardener’s World, and then won the nation over with a programme called Ground Force which secretly transformed people’s gardens over a weekend (I love it).  I knew that he’d written fiction (famed for their ‘romantic’ passages) but didn’t realise that all ten made the Sunday Times Best-seller list, in addition to three volumes of autobiography, several books on royalty and over fifty gardening books. Read more about him by my favourite interviewer Lyn Barber.

Book Alan Titchmarsh’s Lit Fest sessions here.

Nisha Katona reveals food and drink writing ritualsNisha Katona

I drink huge amounts of decaffeinated filter coffee; I love the sharp heat to keep me awake without the caffeine to keep me off the ceiling. Writing about food inevitably makes me very hungry, all the time. I write through the night. I sit in the quiet darkness at my laptop with only the kitchen lights on. I slowly empty my fridge as the  night progresses. Writing books does my hips no favours at all.
I have no rituals or necessities except that there is no noise. I cannot work with any distraction. I need absolute silence and the absence of demands. hence the only time I can put fingers to keyboard and really dig deep is when my children are asleep and my cats have gone a hunting.

Nisha went slightly off-piste by choosing a feast from history.

I would like to have been present at any of Henry VIII wedding banquets. I find his kitchens in Hampton Court one of the most atmospheric and inspiring spaces. Big food, meat-heavy, hedonistic, fire and smoke charred. These were banquets where you ate with your hands and ate off bread trenchers. It was animal and it was gluttonous. I wish I was a Tudor dinner guest at least twice a week.

“Treating them like this is like giving them a gin and tonic and a karaoke mic” so says Nisha Katona on her approach to Brussels Sprouts. This could sum up neatly why her YouTube channel, demonstrating how to make simple Indian food quickly, has been such a roaring success. Her self-proclaimed ‘curry evangelism’ centres on cooking according to ancient Ayurvedic principles that focus on transforming cheap often meagre, seasonal, conscientiously grown ingredients into divine curries, simply and quickly. 

Book Nisha Katona’s Lit Fest sessions here.

Julie Lewis reveals food and drink writing ritualsJulie Lewis

During the writing process I eat and drink lots of water, green tea, the occasional cappuccino, nuts, fruit and dark chocolate!

Before I start writing I mediate for 20 minutes, exercise and do some deep breathing. I have instrumental music playing in the background and have vanilla candles lit. I make sure I get up every 90 minutes to      stretch, have a quick jog on the spot to re-energize. I find being surrounded by nature helps too!
I would avoid the Mad Hatter’s tea party ( Alice in Wonderland). Perpetual tea time would soon wear thin  for me ……..  Variety is the spice of life!

Inspirational go-getter is an apt description for Julie Lewis who lives right here in Dubai.  She has trained and led multi-national teams of women and men on more than 55 expeditions to over 20 countries, including the Arctic and Antarctica.  She does manage to stay still long enough to write and her best-selling book Moving Mountains forms the basis of a personal leadership program being taught at several educational establishments in the UAE and overseas.

Book Julie Lewis’s Lit Fest sessions here.

How to plan your visit to the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

The festival spreads over two weekends this year and the schedule is jam-packed with interesting speakers, many local as well as the usual brilliant internationally renowned gang. Having attended every year I have a strategy of sorts for planning who to see. Read about it here on the Lit Fest site but do come back and leave me a comment if you think I’ve missed anything vital!

 

The food and drink rituals of famous authors

How would you answer? Do you write, and if so, do you have any rituals especially around food and drink? Which fictional feast tempts or repels you?

See you at the festival.

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Vegan oatbran scones

January 7, 2017

My car knows its own way to Dubai airport. If  you were there just before Christmas you might have seen me waiting eagerly at the barrier in arrivals as my family arrived one by one. Now the reverse is true and the more painful farewells have started, including seeing off my younger daughter returning to University in the UK.  Having made up her mind to be vegetarian aged seven she tried alternate months of veganism (no dairy or animal products) for a couple of years. This autumn she committed to going fully vegan and waved farewell to some of her favourite things for ever (milk in tea, melting mozzarella on pizza) in line with her principles. Her sister has also adopted a plant-based diet for most of the time. At our Christmas lunch, five out of eighteen people were vegetarian or vegan.

So I’m Mother to two vegans and I’m totally supportive of their choice and the reasons behind it. There’s been a lot of trial and error over the last three years but I’ve enjoyed the journey of learning to cook vegan. As with all our food, I try not to rely on anything processed. I wouldn’t buy cheese slices normally for instance and so commercial vegan cheese slices are equally unappealing.  I’d rather not cook twice so am always on the hunt for delicious, healthy recipes that appeal to everyone.

These light, fluffy scones are equally good with a layer of jam (for vegans) or a smear of butter (for the nons).  They have a generous amount of oatbran (more on that below). There’s a touch of brown sugar, but not too much, I’m going to try the next batch without it. I used a commercial vegan spread to bake with that’s based on coconut oil (with no palm oil – the baddie when it goes to the environment). If my daughter was here again long-term I’d try making my own vegan butter substitute.  The alternative raising agent for the egg is milled flaxseed and water. The scones take moments to make in a food processor and just 12 minutes in a hot oven to bake, so in less than half an hour you can be prising apart warm, crumbly scones with your fingers (and a clear conscience).

Vegan oatbran scones

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 225g organic self-raising flour (plus extra for dusting)
  • 30g oatbran (I used Mornflake)
  • 40g dark brown sugar
  • a pinch of sea salt
  • 85g vegan butter substitute
  • 1 flax egg (1 tablespoon of milled flax combined with 3 tablespoons of water)
  • unsweetened coconut milk (mine was from a carton) – approximately 50 – 75ml

Method

  1. Weigh out the dry ingredients (flour, oatbran, brown sugar and salt) and put into a food processor. Whizz for 1 second to combine.
  2. Add the vegan butter and whizz until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs (this can also be done by hand using the rubbing in method but make sure your butter is very cold).
  3. Add the flax egg and start to pulse together while pouring the coconut milk in through the lid, a little at a time. Stop when it the ingredients are combined in a soft dough.
  4. Turn out onto a floured surface and gently pat the dough into a 4cm deep round.
  5. Dip a straight sided cutter into flour, 5cm diameter and cut out eight rounds close to each other. Do not twist the cutter to achieve the best rise. If you need to re-roll the dough with your fingers, handle as little and as lightly as possible.
  6. Transfer gently to a floured baking tray and bake in the centre of an oven preheated to 220C (200C fan) for 10-12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and eat while still slightly warm.

These oatbran scones are based on a traditional farmhouse recipe with oats (which you could also use). I chose oatbran for the flavour, texture and health benefits. Oatbran is one of the richest sources of a soluble fibre called Oat Beta Glucan that has been shown to help reduce low-density liprotein (LDL), aka “bad” cholesterol.

As you know, I scrutinize every ingredient that comes into my kitchen carefully and the oats and oat bran I use are milled by Mornflake in Cheshire, UK. The organic oats are my first choice but the rest of the range is GM free. This independent company has been operating for 350 years (15 generations) and is run by descendents of the very first miller. They are dedicated to sustainability and have set impressive energy and waste reduction goals. Their aim is to return to being 100% sustainable, just like they were in 1675 and as only 0.01% of the ‘waste’ they produce is sent to landfill (with a target of zero) and the installation of the first modern-day windmill in Scotland (which also benefits local homes), they are well on the way.

I’m not a great resolution maker but the start of January does mean getting back on track. Having a good breakfast that gives me slow release energy is one of them. Overnight oats (or Bircher) and porridge are both excellent sources of this and my ‘go-to’ healthy, quick and economical breakfast. Don’t get me started on the topic of breakfast cereal…. or do… are you up for a indepth look at this ‘healthy’ processed food?

I’m off to a Mornflake oat brunch event at Top Chef Cooking Studio this week so follow me on Instagram stories for the inside view (plus #mornflake #oatbrunch) and more oaty inspiration.

Note: This is a sponsored post – I received compensation and products from Mornflake, which got this year off to a great start as they are my first choice for oats and were already in my cupboard. All views remain my own, as always.

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Egg and lemon soup – how to make avgolemono

January 5, 2017

how to make egg and lemon - avgolemono - soup on my custard pieThis is the ultimate frugal soup if you live in rural Cyprus and keep your own hens. Don’t worry, it’s fine if you don’t. It’s also bloody delicious despite the unpromising name. In our family it’s usually tacked on at the beginning of the Christmas feast as KP adores it, but this year made an appearance on New Year’s Day where its properties as a restorative for mind, body and soul were proven beyond the shadow of a doubt (ok I might mean hangover cure).  So how do you make it?

First take one elderly hen that’s stopped laying and make a deep, flavourful chicken stock. Then add onion celery and a handful of rice (sometimes fine cubes of potato are added too) then stir beaten egg into the hot broth to thicken but not scramble (like you do in a Carbonara). Lemon juice is added at the end to lift the whole thing to a fragrant, moreish, velvety broth. Alternatively you can use the (much simpler) recipe below. It works well with stock made from the turkey carcass but the stock cube version is actually KP’s favourite – and you know me too well to never endorse stock cubes unless it really did taste exceptional.

This is a family recipe complete with quirky notes from KP’s Mum and Grandma.

Egg and lemon (avgolemono) soup

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 4 pints water (approx.)
  • 3 chicken stock cubes or equivalent fresh chicken or turkey stock
  • 1 medium potato — diced small (optional)
  • 1 medium onion – chopped
  • 1 or 2 sticks celery (according to size) — chopped
  • 1/2 cup long grain rice
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 lemons (if small may need another 1) — juice only

Method

  1. Put water in saucepan with potato, onion and celery. Bring to the boil.
  2. Add the stock cubes or equivalent and dissolve.
  3. Turn heat down so that the liquid is simmering. Simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
  4. Bring back to the boil and add the rice. Boil gently for a further 20 minutes to cook the rice.
  5. Take saucepan off the heat and allow to cool a little.
  6. Whisk the eggs in a basin using a balloon whisk.
  7. Whisk a little of the lemon juice into the beaten eggs. Use a spoon to dribble the lemon juice, a drop at a time. It is about 2 teaspoons. (I am not sure why I do this except Mother and Auntie Sophia used to.)
  8. Add most of the lemon juice to the liquid and rice and whisk it in. If you have a lot of lemon juice use your judgement as to how much you add to start with. You can always add more but not take out.
  9. Using a soup ladle whisk some of the liquid in to the eggs and then pour all the egg mixture in to the liquid and whisk well.
  10. Taste (and ask KP to taste if it is “lemony” enough).

Note: The only things to beware of are adding the eggs when the liquid is too warm or boiling after eggs added. I have found that if I take the saucepan off the heat before doing steps 6 onwards it is about right.

how to make egg and lemon - avgolemono - soup on my custard pieLet me know if you try it. It’s perfect for a Dubai winter as comforting but refreshing at the same time. Free range eggs from happy hens will make this the soup taste even better.  I’m just off to have another bowlful for lunch.

Happy New Year by the way. I’m not making any grand resolutions (no dry January or formal diets) just a few focussed goals to work on. It does feel like a new broom as one year ends and the other begins… even though really it’s just another day! Do you feel the same or do you find resolutions helpful?

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A festive gin cocktail to see in the New Year

December 31, 2016

While only a constructed mechanism of the Gregorian calendar (and I live in a place where many follow the Hijri version!), I think there will be a collective sigh of relief as the page turns on 2016. I won’t list the multiple reasons for this as I’m sure no-one needs reminding – although I did see a tweet from @MsTexas1967 that conjectured:

It is becoming increasingly obvious that David Bowie has established a better alternate universe and is populating it selectively one-by-one

I think we all need an excuse to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and leap forward with optimism and grit; the latter needed to change the things we despair of, in an increasingly intolerant world controlled by a handful unelected powerful players. Simple eh?!

After the privilege of joyful feasting with family and friends over these last few weeks, I’ll also be joining the legions in a few diet and exercise resolutions. My motivations are health, strength, ability to do the things I enjoy for as long as possible. It’s also being able to appreciate the abundance more fully when treats are reserved for special occasions.

But until then, I give you my final gin cocktail of the year, once more created by Denzel Heath – bartender extraordinaire from the MMI Bar Academy.

Named after the Noel Bar in Greece where it is Christmas all year round this has the flavours of summer fruits (perfect for a Dubai winter), Sipsmith – one of my very favourite gins (although you could use another London dry gin) and some beautiful dry Fino sherry which you can keep in the fridge and use as an aperitif (perfect with green olives). Finally there is Champagne because this is the festive season after all.

Noel

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 60ml Sipsmith gin (or other London Dry gin)
  • 15ml Sipsmith Summer Cup (or alternative fruit cup such as Pimms)
  • 15ml Fino Sherry
  • 12.5ml homemade raspberry cordial*
  • Champagne
  • Garnish: raspberries or redcurrants and fresh green herbs

Equipment

  • Glass or drinking vessel (see Muddle Me in the UAE)
  • Crushed ice

How to mix

*To make the raspberry cordial: take equal parts fresh raspberries and caster sugar (500g) and leave for 24 hours inside a sealed container (kilner jar or plastic), shaking every so often. Whizz together in a blender and add 1 teaspoon of lemon salt (citric acid) to the resulting purée.

To make the cocktail: Part fill your glass or drinking vessel with crushed ice, pour in the ingredients one by one and top up with Champagne. Garnish with fresh raspberries or other seasonal decorations such as redcurrants and mint.

Here’s to Denzel for a year of wonderful gin cocktails and advice. You can find all my gin recipes and more, here.

And raising a glass to you all in massive thanks, especially my regular readers who fill me with so much joy and gratitude. It’s great to connect over shared interests and I wish you a very happy 2017.

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Why you need a festive cheese board and how to make one

December 17, 2016

Why you need a festive cheeseboard and how to create oneMaybe it’s complete madness to think about adding more food to the Christmas table but a festive cheese board is absolutely non-negotiable in my book. If the festive spread brings people together around the table, the cheese board keeps them there. Starters, turkey roast with all the trimmings, Christmas pudding, chocolate Yule log et al have all started to fade from the digestive memory but having little nuggets of savoury, saltiness to nibble on with the port or Sauternes is fuel to the communal conversation. It keeps people sustained through charade playing and can be supplemented by bread, ham and pickles later on instead of supper. It’s another celebratory item on the table for vegetarians, and keeps Christmas pudding haters happy – yes there are these strange people round my table and even members of my own family.

Throughout the festive season it’s a simple but stunning thing to take along if you are contributing to another feast, makes a splendid centrepiece on a buffet and can easily do as supper if you just can’t face cooking again. Having an array of cheese on hand makes great emergency rations if you need to soak up the excess imbibing from a party at midnight. If you suddenly crave simple fare a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich does the job as well as being a great ‘morning after the night before’ foil.

I’ve written about putting together the perfect cheese board for the festive season before and recommended specialist cheesemongers for choice, provenance and well-stored fromage. Last week I was asked to speak at a gathering organised by Good Magazine and Marks and Spencer so made my selection from their counters and found some absolute treasures. M&S has an excellent reputation for working closely with their suppliers and while dairies need to be a certain size to supply such a large chain, there was a lot to like about the provenance and authenticity of the cheeses. An advantage of such buying power also has an effect on price and I was impressed at how reasonable these very good quality cheeses are (the 300g wedge of Blacksticks Blue was 35 aed). Here are some of my tips from the demo:

How to put together the perfect cheese board

  1. Start with a theme. This could be a region, a country or something more esoteric but it helps to give a cohesion to the whole board (as well as narrowing down your choices for easier shopping). I went for English cheeses this time although included a Brie from just over the channel for balance.
  2. Choose your base. I favour a wooden board or tray but use something from in my kitchen i.e. a chopping board or bread board. Slate looks good too. Choose a size that’s in proportion to what you are putting on it. A generous look is what we’re going for, so don’t use a huge board that dwarf a few small cheeses if this is what you’ve got.
  3. A generous look. Using a few large blocks of cheese looks better than lots of little ones dotted about. In fact I’d rather have one really splendid piece than lots of mean looking sticks. Odd numbers work better too.
  4. Contrast in taste and texture. I usually work up in strength starting with a creamy goats milk cheese, a soft cheese, something hard, something crumbly and tangy and a blue.
  5. Accompaniments for cheese. A very plain cracker is essential plus you can add a fancier one – but don’t choose a flavour that will fight with the cheese e.g. a cheesy biscuit. Breadsticks add contrast in size and rustic rye bread slices are a good match. Chutneys, fruit pastes and preserves in little bowls add colour and shine. I love a dish of honey comb in the centre – it catches the light and is amazing drizzled over goats cheese, Cheddar and blue cheese in particular. Nuts and fresh fruit are the final elements and make everything look really festive. Blue cheese with pear is a match made in heaven. Figs, redcurrants and pomegranates add a jewel like touch, but even dried fruit such as apricots add a feeling of abundance.
  6. Assemble your board. Arrange the cheeses at different angles around the board with spaces between them. I like cheeses uncut but you can start to slice them so that guests don’t feel intimidated by a large block of pristine cheese, especially if on a buffet. Make the pieces large enough for a mouthful but not unmanageable. Herringbone cutting is nicer that sliced as though making sandwiches. For soft oozy cheese remove a sliver so that it starts to flow invitingly.
  7. A festive look. Place little bowls of honey or chutney between them. Start at the outside of the board and drape bunches of grapes over the edges and then fill in the gaps working inward. You can stack crackers in rows or place them in a separate basket. Group similar items together rather than dotting things around. Layer up with breadsticks or put them in a tall container for added height. If your cheese board is very large do this in situ as carrying it to the table could be precarious.
  8. The tools of the trade. Place a variety of cheese and butter knives at hand or even on the board so people feel they can dig right in.

Why you need a festive cheeseboard and how to create one

A mainly English cheeseboard from M & S

This is what I chose and have since been back to buy more of the blue and the delicious, creamy goats cheese.

Cornish Cove Mature
Made from the milk of cows reared in Cornish pastures this full, rich and creamy cheese is described as ‘rugged like the Cornish Cliffs’ and has been made exclusively by Cornwall-based Dairy Crest for M&S since 2010. The cheese received the royal seal of approval when it was selected to be included in the Marks & Spencer Patron’s Lunch Hamper.

Blacksticks Blue
This unique soft blue cheese is handmade at Butlers at Inglewhite Diary in rural Lancashire. With a distinctive amber hue, Blacksticks Blue has a delicious creamy but tangy taste. The Barker family have been farming in Lancashire since 1932 and the dairy is currently run by the third generation of Barkers. We drizzled Acacia honey comb honey over this at the demo and it converted quite a few people who didn’t think they like blue cheese.

Creamy French Brie
Made in the Ducey Creamery Normandy, this mild and creamy brie has a refreshingly clean flavor and smooth buttery texture.

Goats Cheese Log
Made at the Abergavenny Creamery, which is the UK’s largest and most successful producer of fresh goats cheese. Very smooth and creamy with a fresh goat’s curd flavour and amazing with fresh raspberries and raw honey.

Wensleydale
A young cheese crafted accordingly to a traditional recipe at Belton Farm in Shropshire. The Beckett family, who own Belton Farm, have been farming in the region since the 1920s.  A creamy, delicate and slightly sweet cheese with a smooth texture. Traditionally quite lactic with some sweet notes and an apple flavour.

Cheese history and a cheese cause

It’s official. Cheese is in my blood. This slight overstatement is a result of listening to the Radio 4 Food Programme and hearing that evidence of cheese making 7000 years ago has just been proved in Poland (I’m half Polish). It also discusses the impact of destroying bacteria which can help save our lives along with those considered harmful in the pasteurisation process. The microbes in cheese is a complex issue that we still don’t understand everything about; raw milk cheeses were almost banished in the 1950s but thanks to campaigners like Patrick Rance, common sense prevailed. Bureaucracy is raising its ugly head again though and I’ve donated to a campaign organised by food writer and activist Joanna Blythman to raise £50,000 to Save Errington Cheeses and defend artisan cheesemakers. You can contribute to their crowdfunding campaign for legal costs here.

A shout out to Noreen of Noni’s Place who styled this beautiful festive table.

You can see a Facebook live video of my demo here. Thanks to Marks and Spencer and Good Magazine for a marvelous festive event (and loads of cheese).

I was compensated for my involvement with this event, opinions my own (I loved their cheese!)

So, will there be cheese on your festive table?

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A surprising thing about truffles

December 2, 2016

“So can you tell me anything new about truffles?” I said rather cheekily to Chef Giorgio Locatelli as he sat down next to me at the end of the table for our lunch. “As a matter of fact I can…” he replied.

Having met Giorgio annually for many years I’m au fait with his passion for truffles which started in childhood. I know about the ritual of truffle buying when, once a year, all the children would pile into his Grandfather’s tiny Cinquecento and meet up with a man at a scruffy petrol station. Bills would change hands rather secretively ‘like a drug deal’ and the precious truffle would be taken home and used up completely in a celebratory meal of many courses, the simple fare letting the flavour shine.

I’ve learned about the process of hunting for truffles and the skill of the truffle hound, which digs with both paws if the truffle in really ripe, one paw if almost there and just sniff if it’s not ready for picking. I’ve learned the fickleness of the truffle and its reluctance to grown in a flight path or where there is intensive agriculture. Ironic that Alba, the place with the most famous reputation for truffles worldwide, is a huge wine growing region and viticulture can use some of the most intensive practices, probably threatening the truffle. I’ve heard of the practice of passing off truffles from Eastern Europe (truffle laundering), and how to store them (exposed to air and light as little as possible).

Listening to many of these tales again was as captivating as ever as Giorgio is a born raconteur with extensive knowledge and keen interest in everything around his topic – from science to history. The people sitting with me and the lunch table at Atlantis The Palm were equally enthralled.

And then we ate lunch. The usual simple favourites, a dish of silky handmade egg tagliolini, a risotto with masses of butter and Parmesan, a perfect raviolo filled with an egg yolk and pureed potatoes, white pizza with mozzarella and pumpkin, all topped with freshly shaved white truffles. Plain carbs and protein act as a magic blank canvas for the aroma and taste of the musky tuber. People try to put it with other luxurious ingredients, say lobster and truffle, and it kills the taste of both, says Giorgio. A pot-roasted veal tenderloin and some wafer-thin beef carpaccio were simple enough to complement their truffle shroud but my favourites were the pasta and risotto.

So what was the thing about truffles that was news even to Giorgio until recently? He’d tasted the truffles of several regions, including Alba, alongside the ones of his usual supplier from Umbria. He was surprised at just how much the latter tasted better in comparison this year. His supplier attributed it to the earthquake that struck Southern Italy this year. The trees would react to the stress and retain more nutrients into their roots for stability and protection, and the truffles ‘the children of the tree’ (to quote Giorgio) would benefit. Interesting theory this and very plausible given their sensitivity to environmental factors.

Although I’ve met many ‘celebrity chefs’ over the past few years here in Dubai, I don’t actively seek out these experiences. I admire their craft and have tasted some really wonderful dishes but it’s down-to-earth food made with the very best ingredients that would be my desert island dish. I suppose it’s like going to an amazing art exhibition with the most avant-garde works; it stimulates your imagination and thinking while you’re there but you wouldn’t want to live with it in your sitting room.

It’s the absolute focus on the integrity of the ingredients and the way they work within a dish which makes me admire what Giorgio does in particular, and his continual questioning of the provenance of food is where we find common ground. Obviously there’s a place for experimentation and exploration in high-end cuisine but the real luxury is in a plate of food containing two or three elements which absolutely work together. It’s something to celebrate and a real special occasion, and given that ordering a main course (ours were taster dishes) of Parmesan risotto with white truffle will set you back 260 aed it’s not an everyday thing.

Zabaglioni

More truffle stories

A few earlier encounters with Giorgio during truffle season….

Eating white truffle with Giorgio Locatelli (about ingredients and why ‘more’ is a ‘bordello’),

Truffle, risotto and perfect pasta from Georgio Locatelli (how to make perfect pasta and a risotto recipe)

and On moderation and militants (Giorgio puts the world to rights and we’re ready for revolution!)

You can sample the truffle menu in December while stocks of the precious tubers last at Ronda Locatelli. More info here. I was a guest of Atlantis The Palm.

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