Talking (& Eating) Turkey with Marco Pierre White

My first year is over, and a new one just begun

My first blogiversary

This week, Laissez Fare is one year old. When I first started the blog, I was already certainly a bit of a restaurant geek, but boy has that increased since I entered the world of food blogging and social media (well, twitter mostly). In the last 52 weeks, I have met many new friends, some of which remain virtual, but many of which have evolved into true and enjoyable real-life relationships. I have also broadened and honed my knowledge of food, wine and restaurants over the same period as the discipline of snapping and scribbling about my gustatory journeys has forced me to analyze and discern more about whatever it is I am eating or drinking, and the atmosphere and style in which it is presented.

I suppose my biggest embarrassment in the area of food is that although I perpetually pontificate about food (and occasionally wine), I am scarcely able to cook the most basic and humblest of meals myself. I would be the first to admit that it is a sad state of affairs when a (granted, self-proclaimed) food critic can’t even cook in his or her own right. But luckily my blog has begun to change that as well. ‘Year Two’ will be the year that Laissez learned to cook. So I look forward to keeping you informed about my progress in the kitchen, and any related nightmares.

Before I move on to the main part of this post (which incidentally is partly about me cooking), I would like to thank you for your interest and support over the last year. I hope you continue to find reason to return to my blog and that it keeps evolving into something better with each post. Thus, if you have any suggestions on how it can be improved, I am always open to ideas. I would like to thank Mrs. LF for helping me – indeed, she reads everything I write and contributes her own content on most posts – as without her fine(r) palate and judgement, the insights provided would not be nearly as interesting.

Before this turns into an Oscars acceptance speech, it just occurred to me that I would have never dreamed about sitting down and having lunch with Marco Pierre White a year ago when I was watching him grimace menacingly at a group of celebrities who revered him as a God as they attempted to learn how to cook in a professional atmosphere. But thanks to blogging, these kinds of experiences are happening more and more often. I am continually excited and inspired by learning more about food and wine, and the people who create it (of course, Marco would note that “Mother Nature is the true artist,” his favorite refrain), and I look forward to developing my knowledge, palate and horizons further in the coming year.

Stamford bridging

As many readers will know, Marco Pierre White was appointed the brand ambassador of Bernard Matthews Farms Ltd, a British farming business specializing in the farming of turkeys, in March of this year. Rightly or wrongly (and most food bloggers would say rightly), Marco has been criticized for ‘selling out’, as since retiring from the professional kitchen 10 years ago he has been using his name to support things which many foodies might deem down-market and even undesirable for a chef of his stature, including Knorr stock cubes and Bernard Matthews itself, which has had a series of high-profile issues in relation to the health of its birds and how humanely they’ve been treated, not to mention the fact that until 2005 they were the makers of Turkey Twizzlers, which were very publicly chastised by Jamie Oliver in his Jamie’s School Dinners television series.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the PR people behind the launch of a new campaign that is being sponsored by Bernard Matthews, in conjunction with Marco Pierre White, which is aimed at getting British people to eat turkey more than once a year at Christmas time. Matter-of-factly called ‘Change Your Meat Not Your Menu’, the campaign is aimed at inspiring all cooks, and in particular mothers, to begin using turkey in their weekly meal plans. They argue that “Turkey is high in protein and a great alternative to other meats. It’s versatile, tasty and perfect for everyday meals, and turkey breast meat is also low in saturated fat.” The campaign is also supported by Dr. Carrie Ruxton, a well-known nutritionist, and Rebecca Romera, an Olympic gold medallist in rowing.

The campaign’s logo & slightly laborious URL

They cite a recent survey showing that turkey can easily be substituted in eight of the UK’s favorite meals, and as such have come up with eight recipes for these classic dishes that Moms typically make, with the only difference being that the original meat is substituted with turkey. Thus, using spaghetti bolognese as an example, by simply switching from beef to turkey mince, you could reduce your saturated fat intake by up to two-thirds (11g) per portion. There is a well-researched and detailed saturated fat calculator on the site, as well as recipes focused on ‘slimming’ and ‘leftovers’. But most interestingly, Marco has created four recipes himself, all based on simple ways of preparing turkey steaks and bringing out their natural flavor.

Of course, this is simply a new front in the recently re-branded Bernard Matthews marketing machine, and it is designed to sell more turkey. That said, I have always wondered why British people don’t eat more turkey than they do. Possibly it’s because the one time most people have it each year, it tends to be overcooked and therefore dry and rather lacking in flavor? I really don’t know, and as Marco points out, “Turkey has more flavor and more texture than chicken…and while consumers traditionally roast turkey there are many other ways to prepare this majestically delicious bird.” I remember from growing up in the US that we Americans consume turkey in a multitude of guises. In the States, you can get turkey burgers in most diners and turkey cold cuts are a staple inside deli sandwiches and childrens’ lunchboxes, not to mention its regular appearance in casseroles and, of course, at Thanksgiving.

In any case, I was invited to head down to Marco restaurant inside hallowed grounds of Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge complex, to have lunch with the big man and sample the turkey dishes he’d come up with for the campaign.

Behind the gray facade, the restaurant’s namesake was ready & waiting

After being given a tour of the new campaign website and speaking to the experts on hand, we were eventually whisked off to a large round table in the center of the quite swish dining room, and Marco emerged from the kitchen just like he does on television: ridiculously large knife and constant wiping of it (check), slightly menacing blank stare (check), black and white checkered shemagh on top of head (check). After staking out the table of journalists and food writers sat in front of him, Marco’s presenting persona (i.e. the one you see in his TV programs) gradually began to recede into the background and the real Marco stepped forward.

Marco cooks

After trotting back into the kitchen to finish preparing the dishes, Marco reappeared baring gifts of an aquidaen nature.

Marco’s Turkeys on Horseback

The first dish he brought out was a plate chock full of what he called turkeys on horseback, a throwback to 70’s canapés, except these were made with turkey breast, of course. I have to say they were very delicious, although the turkey flavor was slightly muted by the salty streaky bacon and sweet prune and mango chutney.

As he took a few questions from around the table, Marco visibly became animated and very passionate, not only about turkey, but also about food and cooking in general. A light had been switched on (which shone through his eyes), and it was suddenly clear for anyone in doubt that we were in the presence of a true master. A simple question about which herbs and spices would go well with turkey (a few of his answers were sage and thyme for more a more traditional spin, or ginger and coriander if you wanted to open the route to Asia) led to discussions of all kinds of food-related topics.

Subjects discussed included how to perfectly poach an egg, and why it sometimes goes all wrong at home (the main points were that you need a very deep pot and should use vinegar); why people have different palates (in his opinion, the palate is formed through childhood flavor experiences, hence this is why he believes that British people from his generation have quite simple tastes); and more technical discussions, such as the perfect temperature to cook turkey steaks (he said it depended on the oven, but cooking it slowly in the mid-60’s [centigrade] with some kind of crust on top would help to keep it moist). Some of the things that stuck in my head were hearing him talk about how he is “more interested in the technical side of gastronomy” (indeed, he seemed to have an almost Blumenthal-like approach to solving problems such as retaining moisture in meat) and that “it’s all about the ingredients, not just making it look pretty.”

Along these lines, the simple recipes he has constructed are designed to show off the turkey to the best effect and to complement and lift it, rather than cover its inherently robust flavor. It was clear that getting back in the kitchen to invent new dishes (even if they all focus on turkey) had re-energized the man and he practically danced back to the kitchen to bring out the next dish.

Soon, Marco brought out a very large turkey steak topped with a thin walnut crust. Besides walnuts, the crust included Gruyere, breadcrumbs a bit of butter. It was amazing how he had managed to preserve the moistness of the turkey (one of the key functions of the topping), and the cheesy and nutty flavors indeed complemented the lovely natural flavor of the turkey.

Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Genuinely excited that the table had liked this first turkey steak dish, Marco dashed back to the kitchen to fetch some more grub. Next up was a reinvention of another classic, and a favorite comfort food of mine, Welsh Rarebit. The catch here was that instead of a base of toasted bread, a large turkey steak was used. As with the last dish, he sliced up the large turkey breast with that mahoosive chef’s knife and used the knife to deliver a small piece of the turkey onto everyone’s plate (no, we weren’t scared one bit). He was patient and the consummate host as he got our feedback (everyone loved it) and discussed the topic of turkey further.

After the rarebit, a similar dish of turkey napolitana (which had a crust of tomato purée, mozzarella, chopped black olives and basil leaves) was served in the same edgy manner, and while good, it wasn’t as tasty as the rarebit was to my own palate.

Marco’s Turkey Steak with Sage & Onion Stuffing

Last up in the turkey breast parade was one topped with sage and onion stuffing, which did remind me of a Christmas or Thanksgiving meal – more familiar but still ever so moist and flavorful.

Marco’s experimental roast turkey joint

After what we thought was the last dish, Marco brought out a magnificent, glistening specimen. If someone wouldn’t have told us what meat it was, we could have been forgiven for thinking it was something else (pork, maybe), but it was indeed a turkey joint, with the bone left in. He had been slow-roasting it and it had the most amazing golden glazing on the outside. He had cleverly stuffed it just under the skin with a simple concoction of sage and onion, and he carved it into individual portions and served it to us himself. This was a real honor, and I couldn’t believe how it tasted…almost like a well-roasted lamb, it was moist and had bags of flavor. My mother does a very nice roasted turkey, but it certainly couldn’t hold a candle to this (sorry Mom). Marco had also prepared his own gravy, which he kept jokingly calling “Bernard Matthews’ World Famous Gravy” as there was a company representative present at the table, which was spot on as well. No, it’s not for sale (yet).

Well, after being saturated with meat that was low in saturated fat, I was completely full. Luckily, I happened to be sitting next to Marco, and we had a short and highly enjoyable conversation about – big surprise – food. After discovering I hailed from the Pacific Northwest, he got very excited and proceeded to tell me about a supperclub he had gone to in Seattle, Washington which he was completely enamoured with, as the farmer who reared the meat they were eating was present at the dinner and introduced the dishes that included his meat himself. In general, he has quite a cynical view of the current state of food in the UK (“…it’s all about celebrity chefs here”), whereas he has found that in the US “…people are generally more passionate about the food itself.”

After wrapping up our little conversation, I headed for the hills (well, the West End) and decided that my next task would be to try and recreate one of his turkey recipes at home later that week. After all, they were intended to be simple and easily replicable by the amateur home cook, so I figured if I could make it taste good, anyone could!

Laissez cooks

The next weekend, I decided I would try the Turkey Welsh Rarebit recipe (as Mrs. LF and I both like Welsh Rarebit on toast) and we headed to the supermarket in search of some turkey breast steaks. I couldn’t find any Bernard Matthews ones (Oliver Thring had kindly reminded me that I should try to use their turkey to make it more ‘authentic’), so I bought the only ones on hand, which happened to be organic and free range, so probably all the better.

The recipe card for Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Back home, I went through the recipe and gave Mrs. LF strict instructions not to interfere, although she did pace about the kitchen to make sure I didn’t do anything totally stupid. I thought I did pretty well overall, except for getting a bit too uptight about ensuring the uncooked crusts were perfectly moulded and covered the turkey breasts evenly and completely (I am still way too anal in the kitchen, and Mrs. LF can’t stand it!). I was a bit worried about how they would turn out, as of course I wanted them to look just like the beautiful picture on the recipe card!

My version of Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Well, it didn’t look quite like the image on the card, but I think they turned out quite nicely (no?). Mrs. LF also taught me how to prepare a good vinaigrette for our accompanying salad (see, I really am an amateur).

I am pleased to say that they tasted d*mn good! While they weren’t quite as moist as Marco’s breasts (ah-hem…), the flavor was just about the same and, most importantly, Mrs. LF was really impressed.

So there you go, a relatively healthy, easy and quick recipe for your weekday dinner!

And thank you for bearing with me on my first paltry poultry post. :)

*Note: many thanks to the team at Clarion for organizing the event*

McGuigan Goes Walkabout to Roussillon

A criminally good idea

The Aussies vs. The French

There are some invitations Laissez Fare does not turn down. After briefly meeting Chris Mitchell, one of the head honchos at Cube Communications (a boutique PR firm focusing on the wine trade) at the recent Blaggers’ Banquet, I somehow found myself getting an invite to one such event. A no-show was not an option.

The innovative and maybe somewhat ambitious plan was to pair the wines of one of Australia’s hottest wine producers with the light and refined French cuisine of Alexis Gauthier, who is head chef at the 1 Michelin star Roussillon, which is set on a quiet residential street in London’s Pimlico. The premise? Could Australian wines – which for so long have unfortunately been thought of as ‘sun in a bottle’ by many consumers, despite fairly radical revolutions in recent times at many of Australia’s wineries – blend in with the elegance and subtleness of Mr. Gauthier’s cuisine. Would they overpower and clash, or would they meld just as easily as French wine would? Even if they didn’t, I was much looking forward to a second visit to Roussillon, which was one of the first restaurants I reviewed on this blog, and which Mrs. LF and I enjoyed very much.

Shortly after arriving, we were appropriately plied with drink. All of McGuigan’s entry-level wines (which have a gray label in the UK) were on offer. As I tasted through them, I was introduced to Neil McGuigan, who is an MD at the company and oversees viticulture and winemaking at the eponymous firm. He is a very down to earth and affable fellow, and his love for humor becomes apparent quite quickly. One of the little anecdotes he told me, of which there were many, was the fact that his great-great grandfather had been deported from the UK to Australia for being a criminal. You see, he had stolen some wine from a nobleman, and Neil explained that his family had been trying to pay the world back for his ancestor’s transgressions ever since. Tuh-dum (drum roll please). It was hard to believe this laid-back dude was the at the helm of such a big winemaker, which is now one of the top-10 brands of Australian wine in the UK.

Neil gets serious...just for a minute

I was even more surprised when Chris asked Neil to give a little introductory speech, which while still peppered with his own brand of comedy, was also very eloquent, informative and to the point.

But we had rambled enough and it was time for the main event.

By the way, most of the wines from the classic range were quite pleasant and quaffable, and I remember particularly liking the Sauvignon Blanc, the Chardonnay (which had ripe apple and not too much oak), and the Pinot Grigio (which I found to be less fruity than Italian versions I’m familiar with, and which oddly seemed to have the aroma of petrol I normally associate with Riesling).

Some ‘pretty good piss’

So into Roussillon’s downstairs private dining room we went…

The table was set...as were our places...

...and the chef was explaining his special menu...

Alexis came in to go through the menu in detail and explain how, in theory, the wine should complement the food and vice versa. I was quite excited to taste what was on offer, especially after having recently seen chef Gauthier on Masterchef: The Professionals, where Marianne Lumb and viewers of the programme discovered his disdain for timers – indeed, he decides when things are cooked to the desired specification purely by touch and feel. I just hoped my lamb wouldn’t be totally raw!

I was also eager to taste the higher-end wines form McGuigan. Earlier on, as I tried to explain my struggle to better explain verbally how wines tasted to me, Neil had said that when he really enjoys a wine, he just says it’s “some pretty good piss.” Although it was a light-hearted joke, I did take what I gathered to be his point: that you should just enjoy really good wine, and not worry too much about trying to make sure you can describe it in exact detail. I just hoped that his top-end wines wouldn’t taste like, erm…

The basket of bread was full to the brim – woohoo!

While waiting for the first course to arrive, I hunkered down on one of the lovely little baguettes on offer, which was accompanied by some high quality French beurre.

Lobster & Purple Basil: Light Lobster Bisque Infused with Purple Basil with Scallops & Confit Tomato Tortellini – Paired with 2004 Earth’s Portrait Riesling

I enjoyed the lobster bisque, which was rich while remaining fairly light, and I did note that the purple basil was present but much milder than its green cousin, and that it worked well with the seafood flavors. I loved the two little tortellini in the center, too. I found that the Riesling’s acidity cut through the creaminess of the bisque rather well but, for me, the pairing didn’t set the world on fire. I didn’t feel that the wine either added to or detracted from the dish. Maybe being fairly new to Riesling myself, I just don’t ‘get it’ yet, but the wine wasn’t one I would probably go back to.

Wild Sea Bass & Razor Clams: Grilled Cut of Wild Sea Bass, Steamed Razor Clams with Szechuan Pepper & Lightly Spiced Fish Velouté – Paired with 2003 Bin 9000 Semillon

The next combination worked much better for my palate. The sea bass itself had been delicately cooked, and had a lovely soft firmness. I am a sucker for razor clams and felt that they worked well here. Looking at the description of the dish, I don’t now recall the pepper and spice that is alluded to, but I did like the dish overall, even though it didn’t really pack a punch. Peter Hall, the winemaker, was on hand to describe his Semillon himself. He explained that Hunter Valley Semillon is “one of the most distinct wines from Australia,” and that it is a lighter, finer style with usually about 9.5% – 10.5% ABV. Apparently, they have ‘Semillon & Seafood’ days locally, as the taste of the sea goes so well with this grape variety. I generally agreed with him in this case. The wine exhibited strong citrus and lime and had a wonderful structure. It didn’t dominate and seemed perfectly happy to swish along with the fish in my mouth. Peter mentioned that it was still “a little ways off yet”, and that its full toastiness and golden color were not quite showing through yet. I would certainly be happy to sample some more of that wine in a few years’ time.

Milk Fed Lamb & Thyme: Pyrenean Milk Fed Lamb Rubbed with Thyme, with Parmesan & Swiss Chard Gratin & Thyme Infused Lamb Jus – Paired with 2008 Shortlist Cabernet Sauvignon

The third course was highly enjoyable. The milk fed lamb was stupidly soft and had a mild and fine flavor which was subtly accented by the thyme. I was a little worried that a Cabernet Sauvignon might overpower a dish of such finesse, but I was wrong. The wine itself was very young (being a 2008), and my notes indicate that there was blackcurrant on the palate, that the wine was thick but not tannic (quite soft), that it was fairly jammy and fruit forward, and that there was a touch of spice present. The flavor of the wine actually went pretty well with the dish, especially the rich lamb jus. Neil pointed out that McGuigan was making a big push to give varietal definition to its range, especially at premium price points. He added that this wine was, after all, “only a baby” and that it had a “terrific future,” with the “oak being subservient to the fruit.” I agreed and think this will make a fantastic wine at its peak.

Blue d’Auvergne & Madeira: Feuillette of Blue Cheese, Madeira Reduction Jus, with Wild Rocket & Red Chard Salad – Paired with 2008 Handmade Shiraz

I don’t think I quite ‘got’ the last savory course. To me it seemed to be a nice, crispy puff pastry that was meant to have cheese inside, but that about 90% of that cheese had been sucked out prior to serving, leaving only the aroma and a few remnants of that blue from Auvergne. Possibly like so many other things, its subtly had passed me by. In any case, the Shiraz was a winner. It had a deep purple hue; it was voluptuous, rich, supple, and not overly tannic or oaky. This was not an aggressive Syrah from the Northern Rhone, it was a classically velvety red that had gentle spice and is bound to age well. I personally didn’t understand the pairing here, although chef Gautier said that the sweetness of the Madeira reduction should have gone well with the Shiraz flavors (black fruits)…

Quince & Yogurt: Quince & Sultana Parfait, Honey & Yogurt Sorbet – Paired with 2005 Personal Reserve Botrytis Semillon

But I soon forgot my little quandary when this little slice of heaven arrived, paired with some rather divine golden nectar from down under. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, and ‘tis also the season for that elusive yellow fruit called quince. This parfait was indeed parfait. It was gently cooled, firm, soft and full of that unique quince flavor, which had the softest touch of sultana essence infused throughout. The sorbet was creamy, dreamy and retained that tartness of yogurt which beautifully balanced the sweetness of the parfait. But the real discovery was how well the sesame tuile combined with the sweet wine – bloody brilliant. I really loved this dessert wine, which is made in the Sauterne style, and was much finer than other may Australian sweeties I’ve tasted. Peter said that it was not common for botrytis to develop in the Hunter Valley, and that they only made in a “hit and miss” fashion. Most recently, they have produced it in 2005, 2008 and 2009. If I remember correctly, I don’t think you can yet buy this in the UK, so there’s probably not too much point in rambling on about how much I liked it anymore :)

At the end of the rather extended luncheon, chef Gauthier re-emerged to share a celebratory glass with Neil, which was a fitting end to a great 3-hour partnership between the Aussies and the French.

The two creators smile & celebrate a job well done

I came away from the meal with a greater appreciation of McGuigan’s wines, which I had hencetoforth only tasted in their entry-level form. Neil explained over lunch that they were striving to innovate, modernize and drive their higher-end wines to become really special, and that this would have positive ramifications for their wines at every price point. I certainly did get the feeling that these guys care very much about making excellent wines and also liked the fact that they seem to have a great time doing it.

Their success has not gone unnoticed either, as Neil himself was recently awarded White Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge and McGuigan Wines was a few weeks ago crowned Winemaker of the Year and Australian Producer of the Year at the International Wine & Spirits Competition.

What else can I say but “Good-on-yah mayte” in my best Australian accent?

* * *

Many thanks to Chris and the Cube Communications for organizing the meal.

If you’re interested in eating at Roussillon, they have a number of good value deals, including a 3-course price-fixe lunch menu which includes ½ a bottle of wine for £35/person. All contact details and menus can be found on their website.

McGuigan Wines are broadly available at Majestic, Tesco and many other supermarkets and wine merchants nationwide.

Roussillon on Urbanspoon

Navigating an Absolute Maze of InterContinental Welch Coco Sauce

Don’t worry, the title will make sense by the end of the post.

I recently received an email asking me if I wanted to preview a copy of a new book that would be making its way onto the market soon. The book is called Coco, which doesn’t particularly help in identifying what type of book it might be. Once I found out it had something to do with food, restaurants and famous chefs, I of course said yes. And it turned out that Coco and her promoters had much more in store for me than just a review copy of the book…but first a few facts and opinions about this unusual book.

A unique, engaging, fun & beautiful book about food, restaurants and their passionate creators

7 Facts about Coco

  1. It is huge: 439 pages in total
  2. It is important: 10 famous chefs have picked the 10 chefs they think are the most interesting up and coming chefs
  3. It is international: the 10 top chefs hail from many countries and continents, as do their chosen upstarts
  4. It is diverse: besides selecting a smattering of Michelin starred chefs, the top chefs have also selected a wide range of culinary characters, ranging from a woman running a mini ice cream van in London, to an innovative coffee beverage creator in Taiwan, to a sandwich maker in Portland, Oregon (USA)
  5. It is colourful: 10 colors to be exact, as each top chefs’ picks are identified by one particular strand of color
  6. It has ribbons: one ribbon bookmark for each of the 10 top chefs’ colors
  7. It defies simple categorization: it is about chefs (mini-biographies for each), it is about restaurants (impressions of the chefs’ restaurants/outlets are given), it is a cookbook (it contains a few signature dishes from each chef), and it is packed with food photography

7 Opinions about Coco

  1. It is beautiful: the photography and the layout are fantastic, being consistently engaging, interesting and gorgeous
  2. It is the perfect coffee table book: it looks the part and, due to its sort of random nature (the chosen chefs are in alphabetical order), you never know what you will find when you open up the book and flip through the pages
  3. It is innovative: I am not aware of any book out there that has tried to achieve harmony through this type of fusion before
  4. It is controversial: obviously not everyone will agree with all of the selections, and some people will feel that important people have been overlooked, left out, or favoured (due to their association with the top chef who picked them)
  5. It is a cool travel guide: now, whenever I know I will be travelling internationally, I will consult Coco and see what chefs are in the city/country I am going to, and try to book a table if their establishment(s) seem interesting to me
  6. It is a bit annoying: if you want to go back and find a particular dish/chef/restaurant, you can’t really do it quickly and usually have to check the index for the page number(s) you’re after
  7. It is a triumph: simply by virtue of the fact that it now sits on my coffee table and I think I’ve picked it up every night to read about another chef, recipe or restaurant

Now, the PR company handling the launch of the book (more on them later) also happens to represent a fair number of the UK-based chefs and restaurants represented in Coco, and it just so happened that they wanted some food bloggers to partake in a gastro-tour around London to go to some of these restaurants, eat some of their signature dishes and possibly meet some of the chefs. Was I down for that? As we used to say in high school: “Well, duh…!”

After a week or so of heavy anticipation, the evening finally arrived, and first on the stop was a mysterious meeting-up location: The House of St Barnabas in Soho. All I knew was that (I thought) it had something to do with a charity, and wasn’t quite sure about why we were meeting there. It all became clear though once the well-healed bouncers finally let us through the doors. It turns out that this beautifully revamped building has been turned into a ‘pop-up private members club’ by the folks at Quintessentially and that we were to have canapés in a nice little room upstairs.

Canapés by Lyndy Redding of Absolute Taste

As we were all getting acquainted with each other (which can be odd for food bloggers as quite often we communicate regularly with each other via social media without first meeting face to face), we were offered champagne and some of the most beautifully presented canapés I’ve seen.

Lyndy Redding’s canapés, as presented in Coco

Many of the nibbles we had are presented in Coco and they were all pretty more-ish. My favorite was probably the tuna tataki with radish, apple and mustard served on chopsticks. I also liked the salt & pepper crusted beef skewers with horseradish cream (though, to my taste, it was a tad too heavy on the seasoning). Both of these were presented in an innovative and appetizing fashion (see page from the book above), and I loved the fact that many of the canapés were served on trays which were elaborately framed antique-looking mirrors that faced upwards.

I had the chance to speak with Lyndy for a good 10 minutes (in-keeping with Coco’s measurement units, I guess) and found her to be a very personable and down-to-earth woman who was clearly passionate about what she did. We had a nice chat about her experiences working with Gordon Ramsay over the years which I found to be both enjoyable and enlightening.

Starters by Jason Atherton of Maze

The entrance to Maze and their clever little cutlery holders (by the way, they have those at Maze in NYC too)

Having been to the New York version of the original London Maze, and having had a pretty decent meal there, I was really looking forward to a taste of Jason Atherton’s cooking. I had booked a table at Maze a while ago, but subsequently cancelled due to negative feedback I got from fellow food bloggers and other friends who had recently dined there. I was hoping that they might all be wrong as, in theory, I thought I would like Atherton’s style of cooking which is centered around small plates that employ often unusual flavor combinations in his own version of fusion cuisine.

The fine dining room at Maze (to the left when you walk in – to the right is Maze Grill) was dimly lit and seemed to have a little bit of a buzz going. There were signature Gordon Ramsay Holding design elements throughout and I generally thought it seemed liked a nice space, although a bit corporate and lacking in individuality. The staff were professional but not all that engaging.

Cornish Red Mullet, Rabbit Bolognese, Cuttlefish Tagliatelle, Squid Paint & Asparagus

The little bowl of food we were served certainly looked interesting, and the assembly of flavors and textures had us all commenting – some positive, some negative, some neutral. For my part, I thought the red mullet had been cooked very well (a nice texture if maybe a tad dry) and that it tasted very good. The bolognese was certainly rich and flavorsome. But I guess the real question was whether they belonged together on the same plate. Eating them together wasn’t at all unpleasant (nothing stuck out sorely), but I don’t think it was quite harmonious either as neither element lifted the other. If anything, the bolognese overpowered the delicate flavors of the fish. And I didn’t really see the point of the two cuttlefish rings on top as they kind of got lost in the mix. Finally, all the textures were quite soft; it could have used something to provide a bit of bite. So, while it was interesting and sort of tasty, it certainly wasn’t perfection on a plate for me.

Unfortunately, Chef Atherton didn’t seem to be around, so after finishing up the starter we were on our way back to the mini-bus for the next stop.

Maze on Urbanspoon

Main Course by Theo Randall at the InterContinental Hotel London

The entrance and the bar at Theo Randall

Next up was a brief trip to Italy, within the confines of a big corporate London hotel. I had never been to either the InterContinental Hotel London or Theo Randall’s restaurant there, and was looking forward to it. After all, he was head chef at one of my favorite London restaurants – River Cafe – for aeons and I like his Italian cooking.

The menu and the man himself teaching us about different fishing techniques

This time, Theo himself came out to our table and gave us the background to the dish we were about to eat. He had an infectious enthusiasm and a bubbly passion that quickly won everyone over. After learning about the different techniques of catching and storing fish in Scotland, the quite sizable dish was served.

The Italian breads on offer – the focaccia was particularly nice

Monkfish with Prosciutto, Artichokes, Capers, Parsley 7 Charlotte Potatoes

Phwoah, now that looked like a hearty plate of food. I’m not sure my photo really does it justice in terms of how it looked, though it was quite a rustic presentation, which is fine for me with Italian food. The monkfish itself was amazing, and should have theoretically paired well with the Parma ham but I found that the saltiness took over a bit too much. However, for me the star of the plate were the artichokes, and I don’t even normally like artichokes. They had been peeled down and soaked in some sort of delicious marinade for hours and were simply divine – without a doubt the best I’ve ever tasted.

The service at the restaurant was very attentive and good, and although the room definitely had the hi-I’m-part-of-a-hotel feel about it, they had managed to add some warmth through the quality of the staff. Theo was also a gracious host throughout and even indulged us by letting us take photos with him as we were leaving and answering the odd question. He genuinely seemed like a really nice guy.

But on with the odyssey, and next up, desserts that we had to find some room for, and quickly.

Theo Randall on Urbanspoon

Desserts by Tristan Welch at Launceston Place

The entrance to Launceston Place, home to Tristan’s Welchness

I was the most excited to visit Launceston Place, mostly because Mrs. LF and I had one of our best London meals in recent memory at the very same place a few weeks earlier. Head Chef Tristan Welch had not been there on that occasion, and I wanted to tell him personally how much we had enjoyed his (kitchen’s) food.

Tristan presented the desserts himself along with his magnificent pastry chef and smooth-talking (American) sommelier – on the right side is the sublime palate cleanser of raspberry jelly and lemon sorbet with black pepper tuile

I like the way that they’ve redesigned this building, which has been a restaurant of various incarnations over the years. The D&D crew have made it into a sophisticated, modern restaurant, with the bold choice of off-black walls, almost broody paintings and nice little individual design touches here and there.

It turned out that Tristan was there to greet us and serve the medley of desserts himself. He was joined by his pastry chef and the sommelier. We were all quite simply bowled over when the multiple desserts began arriving on trays of thin black slate. Each temptation was described in full detail by Tristan and the pastry chef, and the sommelier did more than justice to the lovely accompanying dessert white (a 2004 Jurançon, ‘Syphonie de Novembre’, Domaine Cauhape) by explaining what grapes it was composed of and his own abbreviated tasting notes. While I guess I would have liked to hear what he thought after I had tried it (so as not to be biased), it was a lovely description and he was quite clearly passionate about his Jurançon. Is it just me, or do these Jurançon sweet wines seem to have sprouted up on most fine restaurants’ dessert wine lists over the last couple of years?  Were they always there and I just never noticed? Well, whatever…on to the desserts!

Assiette of Desserts

- Rice pudding soufflé, raspberry ripple ice cream -
– Lavender cream, violets, raspberry -
– Apple parfait, toffee, walnut -
– Dark chocolate, iced milk, crumble -
– Set custard cream, caramel and praline, malt ice cream -
– Banana sticky toffee pudding, Guinness ice cream (by Steve Grove, Winner of MasterChef The Professionals 2009) -

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of these wonderful creations. I had ordered and liked the set custard cream on my last visit, and found it just as nice this time around. However, it was overshadowed by a few of the other concoctions. The most fun of the bunch was also the most sweet, the apple parfait, which had cleverly been constructed into the shape of an apple, replete with a real apple stem sticking out on top. It was all sweet apple, caramely toffee and it reminded me of the toffee apples we used to get at Halloween. The walnut bits on the outside tried to balance the overriding sweetness, but didn’t quite do the trick. Nonetheless, it was a great dessert, I just couldn’t manage more than a few bites due to its potency. I also loved the dense and indulgent mound of dark chocolate and Steve Grove’s sticky toffee pudding creation (the Guinness ice cream was interesting in a good way).

Close-ups: rice pudding soufflé, dark chocolate, violets

But the triumph of the evening was the Tarte Tatin with homemade clotted cream. It was honestly one of the best ones I’ve ever had. I mean, just look at @mathildescuisine photo of it!!!

Tarte Tatin from Launceston Place (photo courtesy of Mathilde’s Cuisine)

Launceston Place on Urbanspoon

So that was my little tale of a whirlwind tour of some of London’s top restaurants, their food and their chefs…all thanks to Coco. I hope you enjoyed it – we all certainly did!  Thanks to Sauce Communications for organizing everything and ensuring it all ran smoothly.

The motley crew

Oh, and if you still don’t get the title, just follow the trail of the bolded words throughout the article! :)

A Bit More Wining – Saturday at Vinopolis with Oz Clarke + Some Chefs, Critics & Tapas

oz clarke five wines for tasting

We spent a long and enjoyable Saturday at Vinopolis, first enjoying a wine tasting with noted wine expert Oz Clarke, then a self-guided tour of Vinopolis, then popping out for some satisfying tapas at Tapas Brindisa in nearby Borough Market, and finally a front-row seat at a Chef vs. Critics quiz show which included some of the UK’s best known food personalities

The Wine Wizard, Oz

For better or for worse, twitter seems to be my best friend as of late in terms providing access to some great food and wine experiences, and often for free!

As readers of the blog will already be aware, it was through an early leak of the booking line number from fellow tweeter @richardvines that I was able to secure a table at Pierre Koffmann’s pop-up restaurant on top of Selfridges.

More recently, I also scored two free tickets to a wine tasting with well-known wine personality Oz Clarke held at Vinopolis through a competition organized by none other than @vinopolislondon. I was very excited to meet Oz after seeing the first two series of his program with James May, where they first visited France and then California in order to educate the lager-loving petrol head about the merits of fermented grape juice. Oz’s down-to-earth attitude and no-nonsense (and, for that matter, no-pretence) approach to wine is refreshing and, in my view, well suited to today’s average wine consumer, who can easily be put off and alienated by wine experts preaching from upon high.

So Mrs. LF and I headed down to Borough Market for our 3pm date with Oz and five of his top wines for 2010. The event took place within the cavernous vaults at Vinopolis, which are used for their own events and I presume would also make an excellent venue for corporate events and other private shindigs as well. The vaults originally stretched from Vinopolis’ location (just a few steps Northwest of Borough Market) Eastward down the river all the way to the end of Tooley Street and were the center of the British wine trade in Victorian times up through the beginning of the second world war.

As you can see below, it is quite a cool space, and so it was that…

...the stage was set...

...the stage was set...

...then was filled.

...then was filled.

The audience was ready...

The audience was ready...

...and Oz’s eye was on the prize.

...and Oz’s eye was on the prize.

I wasn’t exactly sure of the format of the session, but it ended up being a lot of Oz doing what he does best: storytelling. In fact, he is a master storyteller, which makes sense given his earlier career in theatre with such troops as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre and The Old Vic, amongst others.

While we did taste each of the five wines he had selected – usually with him nonchalantly asking the audience “Shall we have a swig of this one?” or something similar – and while he did offer some brief and insightful thoughts on how he thought the wine tasted, what I remember most are the accompanying stories he used to bring the countries and wineries that these wines came from to life. It was brilliant entertainment that was educational at the same time, and everyone seemed to be having a good time, Oz included. Although I did wonder if it would be a bit boring for him doing two further sessions of a similar nature that same afternoon, complete with book signings at each. But, alas, I guess these are the trappings of success, eh?

Oz’s storytelling reaches its peak as he recounts the gales he experienced while at a vineyard in Northern Chile

Oz’s storytelling reaches its peak as he recounts the gales he experienced while at a vineyard in Northern Chile

You can find my brief notes about the wines we sampled below, some of which were pretty outstanding for their respective price brackets.

  • Roederer Estate Quartet, Brut Sparkling Wine NV (Anderson Valley, California)
    • Notes: Very fruity (notably pear) with beautiful miniscule bubbles, a tad of toastiness and serious depth. Interesting to note that, according to Oz, there are about 7 million bubbles in each glass of champagne (to be fair, though, he didn’t know which poor sod had been sad enough to do that research). Fair value at £19.99 in my view, as it is comparable to decent entry-level champagnes, if not a fair bit nicer than some of them.
  • 2008 Villa Maria Cellar Selection, Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand)
    • Notes: I have tried the 2007 ‘normal’ version and thought it was a great, classic Kiwi Sauvignon. This wine had a light and bright appearance, a nose of apple, lime and fresh grass, and on the palate it was dominated by greens as well (green apples, grass, nettles, even green pepper). The bottle has a screwcap, which Oz rather likes as he believes it is better for fresh, young white wines and obviously far more consistent than cork. A fine Sauvignon for £10.19.
  • 2005 Kooyong Estate, Chardonnay (Mornington Peninsula, Australia)
    • Notes: For me, this was the clear winner out of the five. It was a marvellous chardonnay, with a golden, rich straw color in the glass, a slightly citrusy and floral nose (plus some butter), and a little streak of refreshing acidity along with some fruitiness to balance what I thought was mostly a creamy, buttery, smoky and nutty depth. It had excellent length. Not inexpensive at £18.95, but it was one of the better chardonnays I’ve tasted recently, and certainly compares strongly with white Burgundies in the same price range. I wasn’t all that shocked to see that it was Oz’s #1 wine for 2010 in his new book when I opened it up after getting home.
  • 2006 Vina Falernia, Syrah Reserva (Elqui Valley, Chile)
    • Notes: A lovely deep, dark red in the glass, with a lot of smoke on the nose. On the palate it was again smoky, with notes of cigar tobacco and also some blackberry fruit. It was a very intense wine, and I agree with Oz in that it does have a very Northern Rhône feel about it. Cracking value at £10.95 in my opinion.
  • 2006 Yalumba ‘The Scribbler’, Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah (Barossa Valley, Australia)
    • Notes: To be honest, I forgot to write anything down about this wine as I was a bit caught up on one of Oz’s stories. Oz says it “has a fascinating initial flavor of blackcurrant and mint, scented with a few drops of eucalyptus oil and a scrape of lemon zest. There’s some decent rasping tannin too and the whole experience is hugged by plump, chocolaty Shiraz.” Literally couldn’t have said it better myself! £14.99 a pop.
Oz and Laissez’s Big Wine Photo

Oz and Laissez’s Big Wine Photo

After the session, we purchased a copy of his pocket-sized 2010 wine guide and I had a brief conversation with the big man himself while he signed our book. I have used his 2009 guide quite a bit this year, and found his recommended wines to be very good for the price in general, with the exception of one or two which didn’t suit my taste. So I am much looking forward to taking advantage of his 2010 guide, which seems to be composed of much different wines than last year’s collection of 250 recommendations, although some of the same producers do feature heavily in both (i.e. Tim Adams, Primo Estate and Villa Maria).

Wine guide authors & publishers: how can you can make your readers’ lives easier?

Wine guide authors & publishers: how can you can make your readers’ lives easier?

One thing I would suggest, both for Oz, and for other authors (and publishers) of such annual guides, is to make their recommendations more usable for readers. For example, while they do list which suppliers carry each wine at the end of the description, there is no way for you to easily find which bottles out of the hundreds in the book are available at, say, Waitrose or Tesco when you walk in.

At the beginning of the year, I actually created my own spreadsheet, which is broken down by supermarket/wine shop (the ones I tend to visit the most), and what wines are available at each place that I have found interesting from all of the different wine magazines, guides and books I have read as of late. It is a fairly simple thing to do, but it is extremely time consuming and labor intensive for the consumer (and only geeks like me will take the time to do so).

So, my suggestion to publishers and authors is simple: include an index in the back of your book that is organized by store. It should just be a simple list with the largest national supermarkets and wine merchant chains in bold and all of the wines in your book that are sold at each store underneath (organized by white, rosé, red, sweet), along with the page number that the detailed review can be found on. There is no need to include all of the smaller/independent wine shops in this index if there are tons of them mentioned in your book/guide, but it would be great if the next time we walk into a supermarket or major wine merchant, we can be armed with a list of wines we might be interested in buying without having to commit the information to memory or create Excel workbooks :).

…In any case, the tasting session and chat with Oz were great, and Mrs. LF and I both enjoyed our time very much. But it turned out that our day at Vinopolis wasn’t over just yet. The kind people there had given us complimentary tickets for a tour around Vinopolis itself (which I had done before and enjoyed doing again), and also some more free tickets to attend the ‘Starter for Ten’ quiz show, which was one of the London Restaurant Festival events, that happened to be held at Vinopolis in another of their many private function rooms. With the prospect of seeing such chefs as Richard Corrigan and Rowley Leigh fight it out with critics including Giles Coren and Matthew Norman, we would have been stupid to pass the opportunity up.

So, after winding our way through the Vinopolis tour, we headed to Borough Market to get a spot of early dinner before the quiz began.

Briskly to Brindisa

Unfortunately, the market had pretty much wound down by the time we headed out, but fortunately Tapas Brindisa was open, and somehow they had a table for two. Perfect! I had always wanted to eat here given how popular it seems to be amongst foodies, but this was the first time I’d actually tried, so I was excited.

After perusing the menu for a while, we decided on a few dishes and they came out very quickly, with the exception of my sardines, which I checked on twice, and after assuring me they had been ordered (twice) finally appeared about 10 minutes after all of the other dishes had been polished off (?!).

Spanish Potato Omelette (£4.50); Grilled Lamb Cutlets with Allioli & Fresh Mint Sauce (£8.75); Onion & Rocket Salad with Pear, Quince & Kokos Vinaigrette (£3.20)

Spanish Potato Omelette (£4.50); Grilled Lamb Cutlets with Allioli & Fresh Mint Sauce (£8.75); Onion & Rocket Salad with Pear, Quince & Kokos Vinaigrette (£3.20)

First to arrive were the omelette, lamb chops and salad.

The potato omelette was surprisingly good for being such a plain dish. I thought it was seasoned well and it had a very good texture of half egg, half soft potato. Mrs. LF agreed, and enjoyed it mucha. 7/10.

The lamb chops were also well seasoned and nice and moist, though they had spent maybe a minute too long on the heat for my liking and were just barely pink in the middle. While there was a fairly spicy allioli to accompany them, I didn’t particularly like it and ate them solo for the most part. They were fine, but didn’t have that extra flavor hit to make them stand out and be memorable. 6/10.

The salad was the disappointment of the bunch. It was really a salad of red onions, with not much rocket and the pears being almost nonexistent. But the thing we both noticed (and still remember) was that it had a very strange taste permeating throughout. At first, we thought it must have come from the quince, but then again quince is a fruit, and that didn’t make any sense. I thought it tasted like corn nuts, but slightly sour ones. Maybe it was the ‘Kokos’, but I don’t know what it/they are. In any case, neither of us liked this distinct flavor. 3/10.

Pan Fried Padrón Peppers (£5.00)

Pan Fried Padrón Peppers (£5.00)

Despite at first glance all looking alike, there were a couple different types of peppers on the plate, some of which had a wicked little kick (Mrs. LF’s nose began to run), and some of which were very mild. They all had a rich, sweet taste and a nice sour acidity to boot. We only ordered them because the huge and rambunctious table next to us had a plate of them and they looked too good to pass up. Plus Mrs. LF fancied eating them with her omelette, which did turn out to be a good combination. We really enjoyed these green little guys. 7/10.

Pan Fried Sardines with Red Onion Salad & Chilli (£6.50)

Pan Fried Sardines with Red Onion Salad & Chilli (£6.50)

The sardines finally arrived and they were alright too (they certainly were very nicely presented). The fish was soft and meaty and had a nice flavor to it, and I enjoyed the hints of chilli. The skin was pretty soggy though, and seemed to be intentionally so (don’t know if it’s supposed to be for fried sardines?), which didn’t make it all that pleasurable to eat. All in all, another solid but uninspiring dish. 6/10.

I have to say that I did rather like the place overall. I enjoyed the buzzy atmosphere, the quick turnover of tables, and it seemed like everyone there was genuinely having a good time. It is certainly a good place to come with friends and spend a leisurely weekend afternoon. They also have some decent Spanish and Portuguese wines available, both by the glass and bottle. We didn’t order that much, but what we did have was generally cooked well, although from the dishes we chose, I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. When in the area again, I would definitely go back to try sample more of the food.

Tapas Brindisa on Urbanspoon

Chefs vs. Critics & One Confused Host

After the tapas, we headed back to Vinopolis to watch the quiz show that pitted four famous critics against four well-known chefs. In true University Challenge style, the event was hosted by none other than Bamber Gascoigne, the original host of University Challenge before Paxman began residing over proceedings in 1994.

Another empty stage at another of Vinopolis’ private rooms

Another empty stage at another of Vinopolis’ private rooms

Richard Corrigan (Corrigan’s Mayfair & Bentley’s) and Thomasina Meirs (Masterchef Winner and of Wahaca fame) arriving to take their places

Rowley Leigh (Le Café Anglais) and Thomasina Meirs (Masterchef Winner and of Wahaca fame) arriving to take their places

The questions had been designed by Fay Maschler, one of the two key organizers of the London Restaurant Festival, and were actually quite difficult, with a number of them baffling the chefs, the critics and audience alike. There were some obscure music-related questions (one where the contestants had to name the composer of songs that ostensibly had something to do with food) and also a few image-based questions (one where they had to name what restaurant was being pictured).

Confound this newfangled technology, thinks Bamber

Confound this newfangled technology, thinks Bamber

The most amusing part of the whole evening was the fact that the very posh and measured Gascoigne could not for the life of him figure out how to change the contestants’ scores correctly. He kept giving points to the wrong side and detracting them from the right one. The audience kept heckling him, but he just didn’t seem to understand how the heck to work the controls. The tech guy from the back of the room had to interject a number of times, coming up to the stage and changing the scores for him. Gascoigne did seem to keep correct scores by writing them down on a piece of paper (old school indeed :)), and one of the organizers in the back of the room was paying attention to every detail and seemed to have the same score as Bamber. I’m not so sure they had it right, but it made for a lot of laughter and fun for the audience.

Giles Coren was licking his lips at something...however there was no food to be seen

Giles Coren was licking his lips at something...however there was no food to be seen & can't we have a smile Toby?

The chefs got off to a bad start, but it was neck-to-neck at the finish – at least they had a good time

The chefs got off to a bad start, but it was neck-to-neck at the finish – at least they had a good time (can't remember what Thomasina was laughing about)

Rowley Leigh (Le Café Anglais) seemed be by far the most knowledgeable of the chefs, while Richard Corrigan only seemed to know the answers to questions he wasn’t allowed to answer, continuously ringing his buzzer during the other side’s bonus questions, which was also quite comical

Rowley Leigh seemed be by far the most knowledgeable of the chefs, while Richard Corrigan (of Corrigan's Mayfair and Bentley's) only seemed to know the answers to questions he wasn’t allowed to answer, continuously ringing his buzzer during the other side’s bonus questions, which was also quite comical

In the end, the hour-long quiz was extended by about another half-hour or so and was quite enjoyable for all, especially the audience. We were glad to have been able to see these two often hostile factions let down their hair and have a good time in the spirit of friendly competition.

After a very long day out, mostly spent within various parts of Vinopolis, and with probably a bit too much wine involved (we had complementary cocktails before the quiz show too :)), we headed back towards London Bridge station to get some z’s.

Recent Winings – The B Festival at Bibendum

b festival

Bibendum's "B Festival"

Bibendum Wine is just one of those cool companies. The kind of place that you wished you work for, but you don’t – at least in my case.

Luckily, I’ve had the pleasure of being invited to their offices a few times now over the past few months in order to sample their wines. Besides learning more about my favorite beverage, it has been a great way of meeting other food and wine people in the flesh, cementing relationships formed virtually through our increasingly ever ‘connected’ worlds.

Most recently, I attended their cleverly titled and well organized annual event called the ‘B Festival’. Rhyming with the well-known ‘V Festival’ music event, the wine tasting adopted a very musical theme as well. Spread over two days, and taking up most of the non-desk space in their offices, there was a ‘Main Stage’ of wines which included some of Bibendum’s most popular labels, including Bodega Catena Zapata, Petaluma and Castello Banfi (which I recently had the pleasure of visiting in person, and of which more soon in an upcoming post on Italy). In addition, there were two other ‘stages’ each day. When I was there, there was a ‘Rock Stage’, which was all about the world’s most exciting terroirs, and the ‘Alternative Stage’, which offered wines a little off the beaten track that could make good and fresh alternatives to classic wine styles/regions such as Sancerre, white Burgundy or Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

I managed to taste most of the wines in the two specialist rooms, which were small and cozy, and was delighted by how far the music theme had been taken. For instance, in the ‘Rock Stage’ they had a Nirvana Unplugged music video playing on a flat screen TV…you get the picture (literally below).

The Rock Room, Complete with Cobain

The Rock Room, Complete with Cobain

Being somewhat of a novice, this was by far the most wines I had tasted in one go. I was literally like a kid in a candy shop as a number of wines that I’ve been reading about as of late (and dying to taste) were there for the drinking. I don’t know if it was my rookie taste buds, which may have been unaccustomed to so many different wines, but I think that after about the 20th wine I tasted, it became much more difficult to differentiate between wines that were even mildly similar. In any case, you can read a bit about some of the wines that stood out for me, and I have to say there were only one or two wines I didn’t like at all, which is quite a feat given the number I tasted.

Rock Stage

Top draw for me amongst the 12 wines on offer in this room were as follows, in ascending order of price:

  • 2007 Savennieres Clos de la Coulaine, Chateau Pierre-Bise (Loire, France), 100% Chenin Blanc
    • Notes: A beautiful nose of stone fruits, apricot and nectarine. This is classic Chenin. Refreshing, fruity and dry, with a good dose of minerals and a dense richness. £13.26/bottle.
  • 2005 Aglianico del Vulture, Gudarra Bisceglia (Basilicata, Italy), 100% Aglianico
    • Notes: Very nice rich and ripe red fruit and extremely well balanced. Good smooth texture in the mouth with some spiciness and pleasant, unobtrusive oak. £14.50/bottle.
  • 2006 Calera Mills Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mount Harlan, California), 100% Pinot Noir
    • Notes: Absolutely stunning. Smooth, rich, luscious, slightly tannic. Pure pinot fruit (red fruit, black cherry, orange peel) and some subtle spice. Good length and just the right amount of sweetness. Quite a long and soft finish. Could drink quite a few glasses of this! Unfortunately not that cheap at £29.65/bottle.
Rock Star: 2006 Calera Mills Vineyard Pinot Noir (£29.65/bottle)

Rock Star: 2006 Calera Mills Vineyard Pinot Noir (£29.65/bottle)

Alternative Stage

The ‘Alternative Stage’, Stacked with Stars

The ‘Alternative Stage’, Stacked with Stars

There were a lot of wines I really liked in this room, but again three or four stood out:

  • 2007 Sangiovese di Romagna, Superiore Terragens (Emilia-Romagna, Italy), 100% Sangiovese – Alternative to Chianti Classico
    • Notes: Exceedingly good value. Slightly sharp at first but then lovely roundness with strong red fruit (cherry) and jam. Some vanilla in there too, and a very full wine all in all. £6.00/bottle.
  • 2006 A to Z Pinot Noir (Oregon, USA), 100% Pinot Noir – Alternative to Red Burgundy
    • Notes: Wow, very nice, coats the mouth, round and smooth. A good dry finish which fades away slowly. Another glass please? My favorite so far. £15.26/bottle.
  • 2007 Glenguin Estate, Protos Chardonnay (Hunter Valley, Australia), 100% Chardonnay – Alternative to White Burgundy
    • Notes: Nice…extremely fruity with a bit of oak. Very fresh and very light in color. This wine is nutty, creamy and has a lot of depth. The best chardonnay from Australia I’ve tasted recently (along with Katnook Estate’s 2005 Chardonnay). This really is a lovely alternative to white Burgundy, but maybe not that much cheaper than some at £15.50/bottle.
  • 2005 Bodegas Catena Zapata, Nicolas Catena Zapata (Mendoza, Argentina), 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Malbec – Alternative to Icon Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
    • Notes: Beautiful nose with lots of raspberry. A deep red, ruby color. Sweet, rich red fruit flavor (again, raspberry and some cherry) plus dark chocolate squares, with lots and lots of length. This is a bold and classy wine which is probably pretty age-worthy. A winner, but not cheap at £44.98/bottle!
A Tremendous Trio

A Tremendous Trio

Main Stage

There were a lot of wines I enjoyed from this wide assortment of 100 bottles. However, I’ve selected a few below which really floated my boat:

The Main Acts Take the Stage

The Main Acts Take the Stage

  • 2006 Chablis Grand Cru Blanchots, Domaine Laroche (Burgundy, France), 100% Chardonnay
    • Notes: Excellent, very strong and crisp chardonnay with well integrated soft oak in the background. Notes of mucky leaves and truffles as well. I love this wine. It is important to note that with Laroche the wines from the business’s own land say ‘Domaine Laroche’ (like this one), but that the labels on the wines from grapes brought from other growers simply say ‘Laroche’. £33.50/bottle.
  • 2006 Puligny-Montrachet  1er Cru La Garenne, Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot (Burgundy, France), 100% Chardonnay
    • Notes: Absolutely beautiful, so fruity, so oaky, they run into each other. But this sweetness and ripeness is kept in check with a streak of zesty minerality. Not sure of the price as it was substituted for another similar wine from the same domaine which was retailing at £29.18/bottle.
  • 2003 Meursault, Domaine Matrot (Burgundy, France), 100% Chardonnay
    • Notes: One of my favorites for sure. Fruity, fat, oaky, crispy. Extremely good value at £18.63/bottle for this quality of wine.
  • 2006 Cote Rotie, Domaine Jamet (Rhone, France), 100% Syrah
    • Notes: Wonderful classic Cote Rotie, with deep blackberry married with the hallmark burnt/roasty taste. Could probably age well, but that said, it is very drinkable now. £46.75/bottle.
  • 2004 Brunello di Montalcino, Castello Banfi (Tuscany, Italy), 100% Sangiovese
    • Notes: Very deep red color. Red and black fruits on the nose (blackberry, cherry, raspberry). Full body, with a hint of spice, something mushroomy and a lot of chew and length. I actually tried this wine at Castello Banfi’s Taverna restaurant a few weeks ago and liked it even better. 2004 was a particularly good year for this wine in my view. £24.92/bottle.
  • 2004 Brunello di Montalcino, Poggio Alle Mura, Catello Banfi (Tuscany, Italy), 100% Sangiovese
    • Notes: This was even better and more complex than the ‘normal’ Brunello from Banfi. A bit dryer in the mouth, extremely tannic. Lots of rich red fruit and note of cigar or tobacco and some spice. This is a food wine, but still interesting on its own. A bit more dear at £34.50/bottle.
  • 2006 Catena Zapata, Malbec Argentino (Mendoza, Argentina), 100% Malbec
    • Notes: Out of all of the Catenas on hand, this was my favorite. Other nice ones were the 2007 Catena Malbec (much cheaper at £10.84/bottle and good value) and the 2004 Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon (£23.68/bottle). This wine was very complex and concentrated and had a nice balance and lingering freshness to it. You will have to fork out £36.50/bottle for the privilege though.

Great Values

I was lucky enough to get a peep into the ‘Media Tent’ to taste some of the more affordable wines that will be more readily available to the public in supermarkets and national wine store chains. At this point, my palate was a bit the worse for wear, but there were a couple of really good values which stood out for me:

  • 2008 Bouchard Chablis (available at Sainsbury’s) at £9.99/bottle
    • Notes: A very pleasant and quaffable Chablis but not a knock-out. Fresh, citrusy, flinty. Very good value for the price point.
  • 2006 Petaluma Chardonnay (available at Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Majestic) at £14.99
    • Notes: Wow, this was a pleasant surprise. Nice strong fruit with some apples and peach, and then a good oaky finish. Very round and luscious wine and I think it’s not bad value for the price.
  • 2008 Gewurztraminer Martin Zahn (available at First Quench) at £9.99
    • Notes: Extremely floral nose, sweet and with good acidity. Lots of interesting fruits in the mouth (pear, tropicals) and a very long dry apricot finish. A very good value indeed.
2008 Gewurztraminer Martin Zahn at £9.99

2008 Gewurztraminer Martin Zahn at £9.99

Last up was a very nice Vinsanto, which I thought represented really good value for the money. Very tangy and lots of sweet (candied?) almonds. You can see a picture of it below.

Sticky Ending: 2003 Vinsanto del Chianti Rufina, Fattoria Di Basciano, good value at £11.99 per 375ml bottle

A Sticky Ending: 2003 Vinsanto del Chianti Rufina, Fattoria Di Basciano, good value at £11.99 per 375ml bottle

Well, not much else to say except a big thank you to Bibendum and happy drinking to you all out there.

Thames Festival – Feast on the Bridge

Last Saturday, Mrs. LF and I had a wonderful brunch at The Table Cafe in Southwark en route to Borough Market, where we were picking up some long awaited pork. As we were strolling over to the market, we kept noticing people walking past us with lots of appetizing treats in their hands. At first, I thought they must all be coming from Borough Market, but then as we looked down the street leading from Southwark Street to Southwark Bridge, there appeared to be something much larger going on. We moved in closer to investigate.

It turned out the entire bridge had been closed, and in place of the cars, there were hordes of people basking in the sun, enjoying a range of food and drink from an interesting mix of suppliers and huge long tables stretching nearly the entire length of the bridge. Yes, it was ‘Feast on the Bridge‘, part of the Mayor’s Thames Festival. I had seen it advertised somewhere a few weeks earlier but had totally forgotten about it. And now we were smack bang in the middle of it. The only bad thing was that we had just gorged ourselves at brunch, so didn’t have much room left in our stomachs. Next year, I will make sure to plan ahead and come running on empty.

But it was a feast for the eyes just as much as for the belly, and below are a few photos we took as we walked up and down the bridge. There are also a few photos of Borough Market and the surrounding areas towards the end. If you want to see the full resolution images, just click on any of the pictures.

Let the feast begin - a list of half the purveyors at the big event on Southwark Bridge

Let the feast begin - a list of half the purveyors at the big event on Southwark Bridge

This was the longest table I've ever seen! Amazing atmosphere on a sunny Saturday in London. What was really nice is that nothing looked cheap; even the chairs had an interesting design, and the whole thing was a much more polished affair than I've seen at other UK street fairs/markets. Well done to the organizers.

This was the longest table I've ever seen! Amazing atmosphere on a sunny Saturday in London

Another view of the extremely long table - looking back from the other end of the bridge...so cool!

Another view of the extremely long table - looking back from the other end of the bridge...so cool! The very cool & interesting tablecloths, which represented food stories collected from Londoners, were designed by Sophie Herxheimer (http://www.sophieherxheimer.com)

We had a spectacular view of St. Paul's from the bridge...

We had a spectacular view of St. Paul's from the bridge...

Detail of Table

What was really nice is that nothing looked cheap; even the chairs had an interesting design, and the whole thing was a much more polished affair than I've seen at other UK street fairs/markets. Well done to the organizers

I just loved the way these crates full of red organic apples looked

I just loved the way these crates full of red organic apples looked

Before: a lovely looking roast pig on a spit

Before: a lovely looking roast pig on a spit

After: it looked so appetizing, it was all gone pretty quickly :)

After: it looked so appetizing, it was all gone pretty quickly :)

This beautiful shiny metal ice cream van was turning out some good looking treats (fyi it was from http://www.westonbirticecream.co.uk)

This beautiful shiny metal ice cream van was turning out some good looking treats (fyi it was from http://www.westonbirticecream.co.uk)

Ginormous Pan 1: a whole lotta curry goin' on

Ginormous Pan 1: a whole lotta curry goin' on

Ginormous Pan 2: can anyone say meatballs?

Ginormous Pan 2: can anyone say meatballs?

Ginormous Pan 3: some good 'ol British bangers

Ginormous Pan 3: some good 'ol British bangers

Detail of the sausages on offer

Detail of the sausages on offer

There were also some beautiful vegetables on display

There were also some beautiful vegetables on display

And fruit too...

And fruits too...

...with some British strawberries basking in the sun

...with some British strawberries basking in the sun

There was also some very colorful & tasty looking vegetarian organic food from some folks at a place called Rainforest Creations (http://www.rainforestcreations.co.uk)

There was also some very colorful & tasty looking vegetarian organic food from some folks at a place called Rainforest Creations (http://www.rainforestcreations.co.uk)

And for dessert, there were some very attractivley presented Middle Eastern delights

And for dessert, there were some very attractively presented Middle Eastern delights

But a much more interesting option for dessert was presented by Konditor & Cook's stand (http://www.konditorandcook.com). Here, children - or adults - could decorate their own cupcakes and stick them into gooey chocolate icing skin of a long, slitherly beast. Quite inventive and brilliant for the children

But a much more interesting option for dessert was presented by Konditor & Cook's stand (http://www.konditorandcook.com). Here, children - or adults - could decorate their own cupcakes and stick them into gooey chocolate icing skin of a long, slithery beast. Quite inventive and brilliant for the children

There were some other, even more slightly cooky stalls as well. One, which was giving people edible potted gardens to wear on their heads, accompanied by little signs saying 'eat me', was particularly amusing - especially the people who were running the stand...just look at their outfits

There were some other, even more slightly cooky stalls as well. One, which was giving people edible potted gardens to wear on their heads, accompanied by little signs saying 'eat me', was particularly amusing - especially the people who were running the stand...just look at their outfits

Another enthusiastic bestower of edible garden hats

Another enthusiastic bestower of edible garden hats

And another...

And another...

She was particularly energetic

She was particularly energetic

An heretofore innocent bystander gives in and walks down the bridge with some food on his head

A heretofore innocent bystander gives in and walks down the bridge with some food on his head

A professional artist apparently created this swinging plant boat for the festival...it was certainly colorful & interesting

A professional artist apparently created this swinging plant boat for the festival...it was certainly colorful & interesting

There was a wine tasting stand, and I tried a Chapel Down English white wine, whcih was a bit too tart and crisp for me - but is was well chilled & hot outside, so not the end of the world

There was a wine tasting stand, and I tried a Chapel Down English white wine, which was a bit too tart and crisp for me - but is was well chilled & hot outside, so not the end of the world

I just had to take a picture of this dog - I mean, c'mon, look at him

I just had to take a picture of this dog - I mean, c'mon, look at him

After the festival, we headed to Borough Market...this was along one of the narrow alleys on the way there

After the festival, we headed to Borough Market...this was along one of the narrow alleys on the way there

We bought some very good comte from a cheese stall in the market, which had been very recently driven back from Switzerland - yum!

We bought some very good comte from a cheese stall in the market, which had been very recently driven back from Switzerland - yum!

The angry looking bull atop the Black & Blue steakhouse at Borough Market was telling us that it was time to head home, and that it was time to end this post! Hope you enjoyed the snaps :)

The angry looking bull atop the Black & Blue steakhouse at Borough Market was telling us that it was time to head home, and that it was time to end this post! Hope you enjoyed the snaps :)

Australian Wine & Food Tasting at Bibendum

The event

Last week, I attended an evening of Australian wine and food tasting at Bibendum, one of the leading wine companies in the UK. The event took place at their headquarters in Primrose Hill, and a number of other food and wine bloggers were there to see what was on offer from down under.

The wines

Four well-known Australian wine houses were represented at the tasting, with each having a number of different wines available for sampling. They were Bridgewater Mill (Adelaide Hills region), Petaluma (Adelaide Hills region), Katnook Estate (Coonawarra region) and d’Arenberg (McLaren Vale region).

Both Katnook and d’Arenberg had representatives on hand, who provided a good introduction to the history, ethos, style and terroir of their respective wineries, whilst Dan Coward from Bibendum gave a brief introduction to the other two houses (see below for some of his more creative efforts :)).

Dan Coward from Bibendum attempts to overload the tasters with information on some of the Australian winemakers present at the event

Dan Coward from Bibendum attempts to overload the tasters with information on some of the Australian winemakers present at the event

There was also a brief overview given of current trends in Australian wine-making from Lisa McGovern, the head of Wine Australia in the UK. One of the interesting points she made was that Australian wine shouldn’t just be thought of as ‘sun in a bottle’ anymore as there are a lot of cool wine regions in the country that are producing some really interesting wines – not just fruit-forward, sweet and easy drinking wines.

And there were indeed some outstanding wines within each wineries’ portfolios. I thought the following wines particularly stood out from the crowd:

  • Bridgewater Mill’s Pinot Grigio 2008:  this was a very refreshing and fruity white with a good streak of acidity and is a good value summer wine at just under £10
  • Petaluma’s Hanlin Hill Riesling 2008: a really lovely Riesling, which paired very well with the hiramasa fish that was on offer (see further below for details) – slightly more complex than other Rieslings I’ve had from Australia and, again, not bad value at £9.99
  • Katnook Estate’s whites, which were the:
    • Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (available at Waitrose for £12.99): a very different Sauvignon than I am used to tasting from Australia, as it had more honey and vanilla flavors to it than the grapefruit and tropical fruit you often tend to get
    • Chardonnay 2005: this was a really nice and complex Chardonnay that was the result of three different treatments of the grapes being blended together by their master winemaker (each with different levels and varieties of oak). One of my favorite wines of the evening, and it had elements of classic white Burgundy. Not cheap at £13.49/bottle, but definitely would stack up well against similar European or Californian wines at the same price point
  • d’Arenberg’s:
    • Footbolt Shiraz 2006: probably my favorite wine of the evening. It had a very Rhone feel to it, and I found it to be lean, pure country Shiraz, which I love. Good value at £11.49, and available at Waitrose or Oddbins
    • The Noble Blend 2005: a good sweet and sticky wine that is a blend of four grape varieties – it had just about enough acidity to tame the rather sweet orange and floral notes. It comes in at £13.49 (375ml bottle)
The Katnook whites on offer

The Katnook Estate whites on offer

d'Arenberg's area at the tasting

d'Arenberg's table at the tasting

I would also like to point out that Mrs. LF and I had a bottle of d’Arenberg’s ‘The Hermit Crab‘ the week prior to the this tasting, and absolutely loved it. It is a blend of Viognier and Marsanne (typical of the Rhone varietals that d’Arenberg likes to use), and at around £9/bottle it is one of the best value whites I have had in a long time. There are definitely tropical fruit notes on the nose, but it is a complex affair on the palate with well integrated wood characteristics, still a lot of good fruit on the mid-palate and quite a bit of length. It was one of the few times we have finished a bottle in one sitting on our own at home in a long time. After tasting it for the first time, I realized that Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV also liked it quite a bit (well, at least the 2007 vintage), giving it a 90+ score in one of his entertaining video reviews – see here.

One of the best whites I've had for under £10 in a long time

One of the best whites I've had for under £10 in a long time

The food

But there wasn’t just Australian wine on offer – there was food too. And good food! Some great producers were represented at the event, and they included the following, all of which I had sadly never heard of before, and all of which are now firmly on my radar.

Wagyu, wagyu, wagyu…that is what immediately comes to mind when I think back on this event. Danny Russell, Sales Director from Freedown Food, was at the tasting and his Australian wagyu picanha beef (cap of the rump cut) was one of the most exciting things there. The beef was served on brown bread and was very well seasoned. It made an appearance every 15 minutes or so on a wooden tray (see photo below), after which it would be snapped up in about 5 seconds flat by the eager and excited food bloggers. It was so good, and was honestly some of the best beef I’ve tasted in a long time. It had been expertly prepared by none other than Aussie chef Brett Graham (who heads the Michelin starred kitchen at The Ledbury – see previous review here). It was to die for, and Mrs. LF and I grabbed as many of the little slices of heaven as we could without being classified as overly greedy by our fellow tasters. It is worth mentioning that Freedown Food sells a wide range of meats – including Wagyu beef, Grain-fed beef, Duke of Berkshire Pork, Venison, UK game, Wild Boar, South African game, Ostrich, Kangaroo, Bison, etc. – and supply meat to some of the best restaurants in the UK, including both Nobus, Wild Honey & Arbutus and Goodmans (the new American-style, Russian-owned steakhouse) – as well as Harrods and Harvey Nichols.

The amazing Australian Wagyu beef from the Freedown Food Company

The amazing Australian Wagyu picanha beef from the Freedown Food Company

There was also a wide array of hiramasa fish on to taste (apparently, it is referred to as ‘kingfish’ in Australia most commonly, although this is a bit of a misnomer). The fish also go by other names, such as its technical one (Seriola Lalandi), yellowtail, ricciola, lechas, and many more. And just to make you really confused, it is also the cousin (or sister?) of one of my favorite fishes, hamachi. In any case, the fish on hand was fresh (not frozen) and was cooked in a variety of fashions. All of the dishes were excellent, with the fish being very fleshy, rich and sweet in flavor – you can learn more about it by going to the Clean Seas website, the company who provided it and sell it in the UK. Also of interest is the fact that the fish from Clean Seas is probably one of most sustainable there is as they use natural feeds, have minimal stocking densities and use site fallowing practices.

The various preparations of hiramasa fish available for tasting

The various preparations of hiramasa fish available for tasting

The other thing I really enjoyed was tasting the Australian olive oils, of which there were many varieties. I have never knowingly tried oils from Australia and was impressed with the quality. In particular, I liked the Nolan Road ‘Robust’ extra virgin olive oil (pictured on the right below), which is organic and seems to be endorsed by Nigella; the Splish organic virgin olive oil ,which claims to go ‘beyond organic’ thorugh its innovative, recyclable and sustainable Tetra packaging; and the 3drops extra virgin olive oil, which was quite fruity and bitter and had a bit of heat.

Some of the Nolans Road organic olive oils I liked

Some of the Nolans Road organic olive oils I liked

All in all it was a very informative and fun evening, and many thanks go out to Dan and the Bibendum team for organizing it!

*Note: this was a free event open to members of the London Food & Drink Bloggers online community. The views are my own and there is no advertising going on here – just some good producers whose names I think should be better known.*