Preparing for Christmas: recipes for cake, pudding and mincemeat

November 23, 2009 § 6 Comments

We are home for Christmas this year for the first time in ages so I made our Christmas cake and mincemeat this weekend, Stir-up Sunday itself.  This is a little later than planned but nevertheless in reasonable time.   Even had I all the time in the world, I wouldn’t make them before mid-October as I think a Christmas cake in particular can dry out if made too soon.   I already have a Christmas pudding maturing in the cellar from last year so that’s one less thing to do.

In this post, I’ve compiled all three recipes.  None of them are difficult – it’s mainly an assembly job getting all the dried fruit together.

Making preparations for Christmas is a satisfying thing to do on a cold and wet November weekend.  The weighing, mixing and chopping are soothing and even fun if you share them round the family and there is a great sense of linking to family tradition as the evocative Christmassy smells waft around the house. Here’s my Christmas cake dried fruit soaking in brandy complete with gaudy glacé cherries.

OK, enough of the domestic goddess stuff and onto the recipes themselves:

As various members of family and friends will testify, this is the  reliable recipe I use for wedding and Christmas cakes.  It comes from Delia Smith, the old-fashioned cookery course book, before she became a media person and the books and recipes became jazzed up with exotic ingredients and soft-focus photography.  It’s dark and moist without being soggy and slices well into neat pieces – essential when you have 100 or so wedding guests to feed!

We like Christmas cake so much that I generally make two.  One gets the full Christmas treatment and is white-iced and decorated with help from the children in whatever direction our imagination takes us.  We excelled ourselves last year with a family of white plastic polar bears gathered round an improbably turquoise fishing hole (fashioned from hard-boiled sugar syrup) in a snowy white arctic scene twinkling with silver balls.  The other gets a more workaday coat of icing on the top only.   It lasts right through till spring and is a great snack for ski-touring trips and days out walking.

Here are the cakes before baking:

And here they are again some 6 hours later (that’s how long they take in the lower Aga oven).  The stab mark in the centre is just that. I tested the centre with  a sharp knife blade to make sure there was no uncooked mixture left.  You can see the slight shrinkage away from the sides of the tin especially on the left hand one.

The smell as they come out of the oven is divine, especially when the small post-cooking glass of brandy is poured over.

My Christmas pudding recipe also comes from Delia Smith’s “Complete Cookery Course” 1982 Omnibus edition.  It’s clear, reliable and produces a dark, moist traditional Christmas pudding.  If you leave it for a full 12 months or so it becomes a wonderful black colour.

Making mincemeat was not one of the Christmas traditions I grew up with though my mother did make wonderful mince pies.  They would have been even better had she done so.  I find home-made mincemeat to be head and shoulders above the bought kind, better behaved as it’s drier and not to syrupy and you can tweak the spicing so it’s just the way you like it.  I have a weakness for cardamom which I like to indulge.

I discovered this à la carte mincemeat recipe in Frances Bissell’s inspiring book “Entertaining”.  What you do is make a base mixture without adding any ingredients which suffer if stored.  So no chopped fresh apple which can make mincemeat ferment if stored for any length of time, and no nuts which become soggy and lose their crunch..  This means you can safely store your mincemeat for ages – certainly 15 months.  When you come to use it, you add your chosen fruit and nuts and if required a further slug of alcohol to a small jar of the base mix and away you go.

Here is the completed mincemeat which needs to macerate for three days or so before potting.  I fetched up the pudding from the cellar too so all three Christmas items appear in a picture.

I can now sit back and enjoy the pleasant feeling of satisfaction that only a well-stocked neatly labelled storecupboard shelf can bring.  I imagine squirrels feel this way when they bury their caches of nuts…

One final thought is that my wondrously sharp Microplane grater makes light work of grating all the lemon and orange peel that these recipes involve.  I have a lot to thank the woodworking Grace brothers from Russellville Arkansas for.

Recipe for Christmas cake

1 lb (450g) currants
6 oz (175g) sultanas
6 oz (175g) raisins
2 oz (50g) glacé cherries rinsed and halved
2 oz (50g) mixed peel finely chopped

(Or instead of all the above, 2 lb (900g) luxury mixed fruit)

3tbsp brandy
8 oz (225g) plain flour¼ tsp nutmeg
½  tsp mixed spice (or ¼ tsp ground cloves and ¼ tsp allspice)
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 oz (50g) chopped almonds – skin can be left on
8 oz (225g) soft brown sugar
1 dsp black treacle
8 oz (225g) butter
4 eggs
Grated rind of 1 lemon
Grated rind 1 orange

The night before you make the cake, place all the dried fruit in a bowl and mix in the brandy.  Cover the bowl and leave to macerate for at least 12 hours.

Line an 8 inch (20 cm) round cake tin lined with a double thickness of baking paper in the usual way.

Leave the treacle in a warm place to make measuring a dessertspoon easier.

Sieve the flour, salt and spices into a mixing bowl.  In a separate large mixing bowl big enough to hold the completed cake batter cream the butter, sugar and grated lemon and orange rinds together until the mixture is really light and fluffy.  Next beat the eggs and – a tablespoon at a time – add them to the creamed mixture, beating thoroughly after each addition.  Add a little flour after each addition of egg if it looks as though the mixture might curdle.

When all the egg has been added, fold in the flour and spices with your largest metal spoon.  Now stir in the macerated dried fruit, chopped nuts and treacle.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake tin and spread it out evenly with the back of a spoon.

If baking in a conventional electric, fan or gas oven, tie a double band of brown paper around the cake tin and cover the top of the cake with a double square of greaseproof or baking paper in the centre of which you should cut a large-coin sized hole to allow steam to escape.

If you’re not ready to bake the cake straightaway, you can delay baking it for several hours or overnight if that’s more practical.  Just leave it, covered, in a cool place until you are ready to bake.

Bake the cake in an oven preheated to 140 degrees Centigrade, 275 degrees Fahrenheit, gas mark 1 for 4-5 hours.  If in doubt about your oven temperature, err on the side of caution and turn it down.  Long slow cooking is best for a fruit cake.  I think baking at too high a temperature is the mistake most commonly made when making Christmas cake (I have done it myself a few times).  This results in the currants getting burnt making swollen little blackened lumps on the surface and the cake itself becomes dry and crumbly and very difficult to slice.

Wait until 4 hours have passed before checking the cake.  When it is ready, the cake will have shrunk back just a little from the side of tin, it will be firm when pressed lightly in the centre with a finger tip and, final test, a skewer inserted into the centre will show no traces of uncooked cake batter.

I bake mine in the lower oven of our 2 oven Aga.  The temperature is only 110-120 degrees C so the cooking time is rather longer.  If I bake two cakes at the same time which I often do, it may take 8 hours in the bottom oven until both cakes are ready – long and slow really is best.

I like to pour a generous glass of brandy over the hot cake as soon as it comes out of the oven.

Leave until the cake is completely cold before folding over the wrappings, wrapping in foil and storing in an airtight tin or plastic box until you are ready to marzipan and ice the cake.  You can feed the cake with a little brandy if you like – prick some holes in the top with a fine skewer or large darning needle and pour over a couple of tablespoons of brandy.  Do not overdo this as it is possible to turn the centre of your cake into an alcohol sodden mush.  If you’ve soaked the dried fruit properly and baked it at the right low temperature, the cake should be pretty moist already.

Recipe for Christmas pudding

Makes 2 puddings in 2 pint (1 litre) basins or 4 in 1 pint (570 ml) basin

8 oz (225g) shredded suet
1 heaped tsp mixed spice
½ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground cinnamon
4 oz (110g) self-raising flour
1 lb (450g) soft brown sugar
8 oz (225g) fresh white breadcrumbs
8 oz (225g) sultanas
8 oz (225g) raisins
1 ¼ lb (500g) currants
2 oz (50g) almonds, roughly chopped (skin can be left on if you like)
2 oz (50g) finely chopped mixed peel
The grated rind of 1 orange and 1 lemon
1 apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped (either cooking or eating apple)
4 medium eggs
10 fl oz dark beer (Guinness or your favourite Christmas ale)
4 tbsp brandy

Put the suet, flour, breadcrumbs, spices and sugar in a large bowl big enough to hold all the pudding mixture, mixing in each ingredient thoroughly before adding the next.  Then gradually mix in all the fruit, peel and nuts and follow these with the apple and grated orange and lemon rind.

In a different bowl beat the eggs and mix the brandy and beer into them.  Empty all this over the dry ingredients and stir vigorously until well combined.  Make your wishes now.  You may need to add a little more beer to give a soft dropping consistency.  Cover the bowl and leave overnight to allow all the flavours to combine and to ensure there are no pockets of unmixed flour or breadcrumbs remaining.

The next day, pack the mixture into greased pudding basins filling them right to the top.  Insert your preferred number of clean foil-wrapped £1 coins or (whatever coin or charm you like to use).  Cover each basin with a square of greaseproof paper and tie a piece of foil over the top, securing tightly with string around the rim of the basin.  Rig up a string handle over the basin, anchoring this to the string around the rim.  This will make your life easier when you come to retrieve the puddings from the pan(s) of simmering water in which you will steam them.

Steam the puddings for 8 hours making sure the water in the pan does not all boil away.  You can do this on the hob or inside a 140 degree Centigrade oven.  I use the lower oven of a 2 oven Aga to do this which minimises steam in the kitchen and practically eliminates the risk of the water boiling dry.  When cooked and cooled, replace foil and greaseproof paper with fresh.  Store in a cool dry place for up to 15 months.  They may keep longer but I’ve never gone longer than this.  So you can make puddings now both for this Christmas and the year after.  When ready to eat, steam for a further 2 hours.  Before serving, warm (to a little more than blood temperature) three or four tablespoons of brandy in a small saucepan, carefully ignite shielding your hands, face and hair from the flames and pour the flaming brandy over the pudding in its serving bowl before taking it to the table where you will have dimmed the lights for the most theatrical effect.

Recipe for à la carte mincemeat

Makes about 4 lb (2 kg)

8 oz (250g) dried apricots or stoned prunes or combination of the two
8 oz (250g) raisins
8 oz (250g) dates
8 oz (250g) sultanas
8 oz (250g) currants
8 oz (250g) shredded beef suet or vegetarian suet or grated coconut cream or 8 tbsp flavourless vegetable oil
4 oz (125g) demerara sugar
4 oz (125g) chopped mixed peel
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon and 1 orange
1 tsp ground mixed spice (or your own combination of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and mace)
½ tsp ground cardamom
¼ pint (150ml) rum or brandy
¼ pint (150 ml) oloroso or cream sherry or port

Chop or mince the dried fruit (I do this carefully in the food processor), then, in a large bowl, mix with all the other ingredients and leave, covered, for 2-3 days before potting and labeling.

When you wish to use the mincemeat, spoon out about 8 oz (250g) into a bowl.  That, together with one of the following, will fill 12-18 mince pies: 1 Bramley or russet apple,peeled,cored and grated and mixed with 3 oz (75g) flaked almonds; 1-2 Cnference pears,peeled,cored and grated, and mixed with a little fresh, grated ginger or stem ginger and handful of pinenuts; 3 oz (75g) dried cranberries, cherries or blueberries; ½ medium pineapple, peeled, cored and chopped and mixed with a handful of pine nuts or flaked coconut; 3-4 oz (100g) dried mango, chopped and mixed with a handful of chopped cashew nuts; 3-4 oz (100g) fresh cranberries cooked in a little orange juice until they pop, and mixed with chopped mandarin segments and grated mandarin zest or chopped kumquats.  To date, I have stuck with the apple and almond and pear, ginger and pine-nut combinations – both worked very well.  Feel free to try your own.

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Mountain breakfast from Andorra

November 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

Hmm this one proved a challenge.  Tiny Andorra, only 180 square miles in land area is just a little smaller than the Isle of Man (in turn 1/3 of the size of Hertfordshire) and has a population of 70,000, about the same of my home town of Altrincham.  It is located in the Pyrenées, squeezed in between France and Spain and is mainly rugged and mountainous in character – no part of the country lies below 3,000 ft or 900m – like living permanently on the summit of Helvellyn.

Andorra, known for cheap skiing holidays, duty free booze and a dodgy football team that even England can beat, is essentially Catalan in culture.  Its food, from what I can glean, is rustic and hearty reflecting the life its mountain people lead (or used to lead before the influx of Irish skiers looking for a bargain).

I found no specific breakfast recipes, but rustled up two typical Andorran dishes are  Trinxat – a Catalan version of bubble and squeak, and Truites de Carreroles, a type of mushroom omelette.  These were just the thing for a hearty breakfast on a chilly November morning.  What type of mushroom omelette we shall never know as the sources are silent on this – I decided to do my own thing on the mushroom omelette front.

The recipe for Trinxat follows, from a handy little website www.europeancuisines.com.  I’ve tweaked the recipe a little to simplify the bacon fat rendering and cabbage cookery suggestions – boiling the cabbage whole for 45 minutes before chopping it sounded neither sensible nor pleasant.

Recipe for Trinxat Andorran cabbage and potato cake with bacon

Enough for one generous potato and cabbage cake in an 8-10 inch diameter frying pan.  I used my trusty non-stick Meyer Anolon pan (8 inch diameter at the base flaring to 10 inches diameter) which is good for pancakes and omelettes of all kinds

Half a 2lb Savoy cabbage, quartered, core removed and shredded
1 lb floury potatoes, peeled
2 oz lardons (diced fat bacon pieces – I used inauthentic pancetta)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
pepper

Crisply fried or grilled rashers of bacon to serve

Boil the potatoes and mash using a food-mill for a lump-free mash.  Season but add no butter or anything else to it at this stage.

Steam the shredded cabbage for 5 minutes until just cooked.

Mix together the cabbage and potatoes.  Taste and season again.

Fry the lardons gently in the olive oil for 5 minutes or so until the fat is rendered and the lardons begin to turn golden-brown at the edges.  Throw in the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes more.  Add the cabbage and potato mixture, stir to distribute lardons and garlic then flatten into a 1/2 inch thick cake.  Cook over a moderate heat on the hob until a crust has formed (5-10 minutes).  Invert a large plate over the frying pan and carefully flip the cake over and slide it back into the pan.  I wear oven gloves to do this.  Cook for a further 5-10 minutes until the second side is crusty and browned.

Serve with crisply fried or grilled bacon rashers.  A poached egg or two would be a good addition if not entirely authentically Andorran.

Too much salt in branded pasta sauces

November 14, 2009 § 2 Comments

I have yet to find and read a definitive academic study on salt in the diet and its effects on health but as I understand it salt/sodium in the diet has a proven effect on hypertension/high blood pressure which in turn significantly increases the risk of stroke and heart disease.  I also have a suspicion that, without knowing what our recommended intake of salt is, most of us eat far more than our daily recommended allowance of salt.

I refuse to stop seasoning the food I cook at home with salt.  What really annoys me is the hidden salt content in processed foods, salt we don’t even know we’re eating.  One answer is to reduce the processed foods we eat.  That’s all very well for soups, ready meals and sauces but much more difficult in the case of bread.  Bread is a staple food and whilst it’s undeniably satisfying to bake your own bread most of us buy the majority of our bread probably from a supermarket.  Having on occasion peered at the labels on bread, it seems  that all the branded bread on sale is high in salt with remarkably little variation in salt content between the different brands. A little salt in bread is needed to make it taste good but it’s nothing short of scandalous that we are forced to eat salt in such quantity in a staple food.

Salt levels in processed food, especially in bread has been an issue I’ve been concerned about for some time now so the news story which broke yesterday about salt levels in branded pasta sauces caught my interest immediately.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2009/nov/12/jamie-oliver-salt-pasta-sauce

Predictably enough it was Jamie Oliver, and to a lesser extent Loyd Grossman branded products which hit the headlines as containing most salt.  In Jamie’s case, the hypocrisy was pointed out as he has famously spearheaded a number of healthy eating initiatives, notably campaigning for better quality school meals.

The story behind the headlines is that on organisation called CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health) published the results of its survey into the salt content of 190 (yes 190) different branded pasta sauces.  A quick glance at the CASH website shows that it seems to be a pukka (to borrow Jamie’s term) organisation backed by leading scientists.  The sauces were then ranked by salt content per 100g and salt per serving size was then computed and compared to our recommended daily intake of 6 g salt per day.

You can find the CASH website at http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/

Top of the list was actually Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Pesto alla Genovese with 3.2g salt per 100g.  This retails in a 190g jar but it was Jamie  who hit the headlines as being the worst salt culprit with his Spicy Olive Garlic & Tomato Sauce containing 3g salt per 100g.  The sauce is sold in a 350g jar and if you assume a portion size to be half a jar as the CASH researchers did, then each serving contains a whopping 5.25g salt using up nearly all your recommended daily salt allowance in one go.

This didn’t sound too good for Jamie.  I support much of what he has done in raising issues about school food and conditions in which battery chickens are reared.  I am also aware that certain areas of the media love to take a pop at him.  I decided to call in at my local supermarket to pick up a bottle of the now infamous Spicy Olive Tomato & Garlic sauce to see if it might have any redeeming features.  It might be for example a super-concentrated sauce where just a couple of spoonfuls might be required – for example nobody in their right mind would think of lobbing whole jar of pesto into the pan for pasta for 2 people.

Three attempts to find the sauce failed – the shelves of my local Co-op, Waitrose and even Jamie’s own Sainsbury’s were bare not only of this sauce but of all his branded products.  I concluded that they couldn’t be much of a health risk if you couldn’t actually buy the stuff.

I was now in Sainsbury’s with an empty basket.  Faced with shelf after shelf of lookalike bottled sauces I decided that I’d buy and taste test three of them.  I picked up a 350g jar of Loyd Grossman Tomato and Chilli Sauce containing 1.5g salt per 100g, a 200g jar of Seeds of Change organic Roasted Red Pepper sauce also with 1.5g salt per 100g, and finally a 350g jar of Gordon Ramsay Seriously Good Olive and Tomato sauce with 1.0g salt per 100g.

Scanning the row after row of identikit sauces I was amazed, maybe even horrified at how many of these rather sad products were on offer. It was notable too that many were promoted by minor celebrities a little past their use-by date.  As well as Loyd Grossman and Gordon Ramsay products there were of course Paul Newman’s sauces and even a range by Lawrence Dallaglio… yes the former England rugby captain.  Are these products aimed at sad single guys cooking for themselves I mused?

Three of us (me plus sons George and Arthur) taste-tested the three selected sauces in the Raffle kitchen on Saturday lunchtime.  We were unanimous in deciding that the Loyd Grossman sauce was the worst of the bunch.  Watery, greasy, big lumps of carelessly chopped tomato and unpleasantly salty.  The advertised chilli was unpleasantly harsh.

The boys quite liked the Seeds of Change red pepper sauce because of its sweetness which in turn masks its saltiness.  They compared it to sweet and sour sauce. I found the smell on opening the jar rather repulsive – like a particularly nasty babyfood- and the texture rather slimy because of the inclusion of some kind of gum or starch within the ingredients. Also the red pepper was unskinned which is just lazy on the part of the manufacturers.

Best of the bunch was Gordon’s sauce.  It had a pleasant thick texture and depth of flavour from the herbs used.  There were visible chunks of olive and caper in the sauce.  It was still quite salty and I think a little would go a long way.  This sauce may have been best of the bunch but frankly that’s not saying much when the field is this weak.

My conclusion was that I wouldn’t choose to buy any of these products again and I rather wastefully chucked out the sauce we hadn’t eaten.  Not only did they not taste great but all three were unnecessarily salty and the excess salt didn’t compensate for the underlying lack of flavour.  If I wanted a tomato pasta sauce in a hurry, I would use a few spoonfuls of passata warmed through with a tablespoon of good olive oil.

For all you single guys cooking for yourself out there – don’t buy this stuff.  Instead, whip up a quick Spaghetti ‘ajo e ojo’ (with garlic and oil).  Just dress your spaghetti  with olive oil in which a couple of chopped cloves of garlic have been sautéd until golden brown, season with a couple of twists of black pepper and as much or as little salt as is right for your personal taste and you’re done.  This pasta dish is by all accounts the late-night snack of choice of Rome’s chic insomniacs.  Much more stylish than a sad jar of Gordon Ramsay or, god forbid, Lawrence Dallaglio…

Dinner at Michael Caines Restaurant at ABode Manchester

November 5, 2009 § 2 Comments

Tim and I finally made it to Michael Caines Restaurant at ABode on a wet and windy Wednesday night in early November.

First, a little background on the Abode concept (sorry I can’t keep up the tricksy capitalisation any longer).  Abode is a small chain of boutique city centre hotels each with a Michael Caines restaurant attached.  Looking at the website, they aim to attract a hip and trendy crowd, but looking round at the lobby the real clientele is somewhat older, more portly but no doubt more monied.  The man with the money behind the concept is one Andrew Brownsword, an entrepreneur with a taste for discreet self-publicity, hence the AB in ABode and the sponsoring of Brownsword Hall in Poundbury, Prince Charles’ model village.  Yes, Brownsword is numbered amongst Prince Charles’ best mates.

Brownsword has featured regularly in the Sunday Times Rich List for a decade or so.  He made his money in greetings cards and Forever Friends teddy bears, businesses which he sold to Hallmark Cards in the early 90s reputedly for some £190 million.  He used the money to establish a hotel business and is also majority owner of Bath Rugby Club.

Brownsword and Caines met after a lunch at Exeter’s Royal Clarence Hotel in 2003 where Caines was executive chef.  Brownsword enjoyed his meal so much that, in a Victor Kiam moment, he bought not just the restaurant but the hotel as well and the Abode concept was born.  There are now Abode hotels in Glasgow, Canterbury, Chelsea and Chester as well as Manchester and Exeter.

Enough of background and onto the dinner experience.  We descended from the hotel lobby into the basement where you will find the champagne bar and restaurant.  Manchester is famous for being the centre of cotton industry in the nineteenth century and the building where Abode is now situated is very evidently a former cotton warehouse.  It has been sympathetically converted, keeping the roomy expanse of space you associate with a warehouse and making a feature of the sturdy cast iron columns which support the roof.  Clever use of translucent glass panels breaks up the room and gives its various spaces an intimate feel within the large basement area.

The comedy French maître d’ (is he for real?) whisked away my bags of early Christmas shopping and seated us in the champagne bar, a space adjoining the the main dining area with plenty of scope for people watching.  The basement is softly lit, lots of dark wood, brown and orange and a Paul Smith striped carpet.  There are black and white photos of rock stars on the walls and napery is limited to generously sized white napkins.  The problem any basement encounters is that there is no natural light.  On a cold and wet evening in late autumn this didn’t matter at all but I probably wouldn’t come here for lunch for that reason despite the remarkably good value £12 “grazing” menu lunch offer.

DSC01401

The cocktail list is impressive, naming the Head Mixologist as one Adrian Vipond.  I liked the sound of the wittily named Lady Macbeth (blended Scotch plus various red fruit liqueurs shaken over ice) but Tim and I both plumped for a flute of the house champagne.  This was acceptable but I wasn’t blown away by it.  Being bone dry, it would have been good in one of the various Champagne cocktails on offer.  I’d love to come back and try a cocktail sometime – the only downer was the rather damp smell lingering in this corner which resulted from a leaking skylight.  Our fellow drinkers didn’t seem to notice that the sofa they were perched on was damp from dripping rainwater.  I think they’d had a few…

After a little difficulty identifying the right member of staff – there were lots of staff in the dining room but working apparently to strict lines of demarcation- we succeeded in getting hold of menus.  The first decision you have to make is whether to go with the grazing menu, multi-course tasting menu or standard à la carte selection.  Prices didn’t look too unreasonable – for instance the tasting menu is a headline £65  per head (sorry I failed to make  a note of whether this included VAT and service). Our hostess patiently explained how the grazing menu worked: these are small portions of stand-alone dishes which function either as starter or main. You order as many or as few as you like in whatever order takes your fancy.  In effect it’s a design-your-own tasting menu.

Unsure of portion sizes and how the grazing concept would work in practice we decided to dip a toe in the water and choose 2 grazing dishes each as a starter followed by an à la carte main.  My choices were (i) crab cannelloni with pink grapefruit jelly and lemon thyme foam, and (ii) tuna tartare with pickled beetroot and turnip, wasabi mayonnaise and sweet raisin vinaigrette.  Both dishes were pretty as a picture as you can see below and modishly served on a square glass plate and slate tile respectively.

DSC01402

Head chef Ian Matfin clearly knows what he is doing.  The flavour combinations were logical, classic even but presented in a new way and both dishes showcased high levels of skill in the kitchen.  After tasting these two dishes, I wish I’d gone for the full grazing option rather than a single main.

My main course was roast mallard with jus (known in my kitchen as gravy) celeriac mash and winter berries (these were cranberries and blueberries I think).  The mallard was cooked to an accurate medium rare as requested and was pink and juicy.  It came unexpectedly with a tiny jug of bread sauce which, given the presence of celeriac mash, was not entirely necessary, nor is it a classic roast duck accompaniment.  My only gripe (a perennial one) was that we had to order a selection of vegetables and potatoes to accompany the our main courses.  These were dinkily served in a lidded white china sugar bowl but were nevertheless the same old boring boiled broccoli, cauliflower and carrot.

We chose a bottle of Gigondas to accompany our meal which appeared ostentatiously in the separate Fine Wine section of the menu.  Why the wine list couldn’t simply be presented by region with wines listed in price order rather than by grape type I don’t know.  This leads to weird anomalies such as Châteauneuf du Pape being grouped with Beaujolais under “Red wines – other”.  Given the excellence and variety of the grazing dishes it would have been good to see more wines offered by the glass too – crab cannelloni and Gigondas is definitely not a match made in heaven.

We were offered the pudding menu with lots of interesting sounding choices.  I chose the pumpkin crème brûlée with chocolate ice cream.  It sounded weird and it was. Frankly it was a bit yucky.  Like pumpkin pie filling but without the benefit of pumpkin spice.  An obsession with inventiveness had clearly clouded the chef’s judgement here.  Never mind, the espresso which came next was just right.

I’d love to come again and would try the full-blown grazing option skipping the pudding next time.

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