Meringues like Katy Perry’s nipple tassels: lunch at Northcote

July 21, 2010 § 1 Comment

You know the ones I mean at the end of her fun “California Gurls” pop video feat. Snoop Dogg? Here they are balancing on my strawberry pudding with Kendal mint cake water ice:

So this is what funky head chef Lisa Allen gets up to in her spare time…

After years of thinking about it, I finally made it to Northcote (they’ve quietly dropped the Manor part of the name in an effort to sound up to date I think) in Langho, near Blackburn, Lancashire for lunch with my father Bob and stepmother Kath. It’s about an hour’s drive away which has been the problem all along – a bit too far for a convenient night out and a bit too close for a weekend away. By the way this Northcote is not to be confused with its namesake in Devon some 300 miles away in the SW of England.

A bit of background – Northcote is a small country house hotel founded in 1983. The business is owned 50:50 by chef Nigel Haworth and business partner from the hotel and wine trade Craig Bancroft. The restaurant gained a Michelin star in 1996 and has successfully held on to it ever since. Nigel has become well known throughout the UK in part thanks to regular appearances on BB TV’s “Great British Menu.” New head chef Lisa Allen stepped into Nigel’s shoes (he’s now executive chef) at Northcote 6 years ago aged just 23 and made her Great British Menu début earlier this year.

As you pull into the carpark, you wouldn’t immediately know that there’s anything special about the place. The hotel looks like what it is, a late Victorian gentleman merchant’s residence, comfortable, practical and solid looking rather than drop-dead gorgeous like its Devon namesake.

It soon becomes apparent that this is a slick and well run operation – everything happens smoothly and runs like clockwork. We were shown into the lounge area for drinks and the maître d’ quickly took us through the menu choices. I was delighted to find Lisa’s Great British Menu available in a number of formats as a lunchtime special so all 3 of us opted for that. Decision made. Here it is:

EITHER Levens Hall Wild Rabbit
& Leek Turnover, Piccalilli
Wild Morecambe Bay Seabass, Shrimp Toastie,
Growing Well Tomato, Samphire
Salt Marsh Lamb, Crushed Peas, Woodland Mushrooms,
English Onion and Sweetbread Fritter
Sunny Bank Farm Strawberries, Meringue,
Quiggin’s Kendal Mint Cake Water Ice

I opted for the rabbit turnover, Bob and Kath for the seabass. After drinks in the bar served with the lightest-ever pea mousse with bread crisps as a nibble, we were shown to our table.

The dining room itself is simply decorated in pale colours eschewing the overpowering brocade and dark stained wood look that some of the houses of this period have. I liked the plain white napery, solid cutlery and understated glassware. Nothing too fancy and all of good quality which I suppose is the house style. The ladies’ cloakroom, always a bellwether of whether the management pay attention to detail, was rather lovely in a cosseting kind of way:

The only lapse of good taste was my flashy “lay” plate which seemed at first to be blue and white willow pattern type of decoration but on closer inspection proved to be a faux-aged mugshot of Nigel… Fortunately the lay-plate was soon whisked away and the more aesthetically pleasing starters arrived. Here’s my dinky rabbit turnover with deconstructed piccalilli:

The pastry was crisp and the rabbit fillet within flavoursome and juicy. I was reminded as I ate what a good pickle picalilli is making use of the now sadly out-of-favour cauliflower. I really should make some soon.

Next up was the rack of saltmarsh lamb- a suitably summery dish made by the inclusion of the sweetbread and onion fritter. Delicious with a lipsmacking contrast of textures and flavours. The portion sizes are not too large which is perfect for lunch:

And then the rather glamorous strawberry pudding served in its Eero Arnio bubble-chair bowl on the now obligatory slate. I enjoyed the strawberry elements – a thin layer of jelly on top of strawberry mousse, plus whole fruit, also the textural contrast provided by those naughty little meringues but remain unconvinced about the mint flavour. The problem with mintcake is that it is a very pure mint flavour with all the green herbal elements removed but it is in fact these green herbal flavours that marry best with the strawberries. Having checked my trusty Harold McGee I think it’s the menthol which gives the pure almost medicinal mint flavour which is too predominant in mint cake whereas it’s the various terpenes and pyridines within the spearmint plant which give its fresh leaves their special aroma.

I felt quite starstruck when Lisa came out to meet us afterwards in her chef’s whites and clogs: she’s slender and elfin in appearance with a shock of ash-blonde hair, a bit like a young Annie Lennox. She is also down-to-earth and charming and is clearly passionate about what she does in the kitchen. It was a lovely way to round off our meal, along with the delectable miniature Eccles cakes.

Contact details
Northcote Road, Langho,
Blackburn, Lancs
Tel: 01254 240555
Fax: 01254 246568

Armenian breakfast

July 17, 2010 § 1 Comment

This is the latest breakfast in our family project to prepare and eat a breakfast from every country in the world in alphabetical order. The highlight was without doubt these plaited brioche-type breads called Choereg or Choreg which are in fact very simple to make once your plaiting technique is sorted out. As a little girl I had long hair often plaited so this was no problem.

What do I know about Armenia? Very little. “A landlocked country with Turkey to the West and Georgia to the North, Armenia boasts striking scenery with high mountains and caves, lakes and hot springs”. So says the BBC News website, along with a few other key facts: capital city Yerevan; population 3.1 million; land area 11,484 sq miles (ed: about twice the size of the English county of Yorkshire); major religion Christianity.

Armenia has a huge diaspora and famous Armenians or people of Armenian descent can be found all over the world: the composer Aram Khachaturian (whose Spartacus theme was used as the opening music for BBC TV series The Onedin Line) and singers Charles Aznavour and Cher are just a few examples.

This means too that there are many Armenians in Europe and the US wanting to recreate a taste of home, communicating with one another and sharing recipes which conjure up a taste of the homeland. Luckily for me, Armenian recipes are relatively easy to come by on the web,

I started my research with a visit to a Manchester institution, The Armenian Taverna which for as long as most people can remember has occupied discreet basement premises in Albert Square. It looks as if I was in the nick of time as, sadly, the restaurant went on the market last month.

Owner Mafif Alamyan (reputed to be a former Olympic wrestler) was most helpful when describing typical Armenian breakfast dishes. Eggs, tomatoes and cheese featured on his list as did Armenian bread. It was in describing the fruit of Armenia, both fresh and preserved as jam, that he became almost lyrical – he talked of green walnut jam, apricots (the Latin name for the apricot is after all Prunus armeniaca) , cherries and especially mulberries. I recommend a visit to the Armenian Taverna before it vanishes for ever

Now I needed to flesh out Mr Alamyan’s guidance with some recipes. First stop was a vast repository of Armenian food and memories compiled by the Kalajian family now living in the US. Here I found a description of egg scrambled with tomatoes which seemed to fit the bill for a simple breakfast dish – so simple it doesn’t need a recipe, just Mr Kalajian’s simple instructions. “You cut up a tomato as chunky or delicate as you like and stir it into your eggs as you scramble them. Add salt and pepper and eat with bread”.

The next challenge was to try and locate mulberry jam. This could be tricky. The only mulberry tree I know of is Milton’s (so called because the poet sat and composed under its shade) in the Fellows’ Garden at Christ’s College in Cambridge. No way was I going to get permission to gather mulberries from there very easily. There had to be another way. Sadly I couldn’t find anyone selling mulberry jam made in the UK but specialist deli Mortimer & Bennett came up with the goods – a middle eastern mulberry jam made in the Lebanon. This would do nicely. Mortimer & Bennett are based in Turnham Green, West London and have a wide range of delectable and out of the ordinary deli items. They sell via their website as well as from the shop and I can vouch that they provide an efficient and personal service. My package of goodies (I just had to buy some oils and chocolate too as they offer free shipping if your order is £50 or more) arrived safe and sound a few days after ordering. Here’s the jam complete with rustic hessian lid cover:

OK so the jam was now sorted so now for the bread. I found three Armenian bread/pastry recipes suitable for breakfast, the first Bishi (sometimes spelt BeeShee, sometimes also called Zeppole), a kind of doughnut, the second Keta, a walnut-stuffed Danish-type pastry and the third Choereg, a plaited sesame sprinked loaf enriched with eggs and butter (also spelt choreg and I reckon its similar to the Greek tsoureki too).

To make the most of the carefully sourced mulberry jam, I opted to make the plainest of the three breads, the choereg choosing a straightforward recipe contributed by Ani from Montreal which I found on I give the recipe below but I did reduce the fat content of the recipe to just 8oz from the 1lb specified, similarly I used 4 eggs rather 5 – it still turned out spectacularly well.

A word on mahleb – this is a middle eastern spice made from the kernel of a special variety of cherry. I’d already started the recipe when I noticed this little bombshell in the list of ingredients so didn’t even attempt to track some down so added a slug of Amaretto and another one of Kirsch to try and provide the required almondy cherry flavours.

Recipe for Choereg – Armenian sweet plaited bread


1 cup whole milk (8 fl oz)
1 cup butter (8 oz or 225g)
1 cup white sugar (8 oz or 225g)
1/2 cup lukewarm water (4 fl oz or 120ml)
2 teaspoons white sugar
2 (.25 ounce) envelopes easyblend dry yeast
4 eggs (plus more beaten egg for glazing)
6 cups all-purpose flour plus more if required to obtain the right dough consistency (840g or 1 lb 14 oz) – I used a mixture of strong and ordinary plain white flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons ground mahleb (see note above)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk and butter. Heat until butter is melted, but do not let it boil. Stir in 1 cup of sugar until dissolved, then set aside to cool to lukewarm. Crack the eggs into a large bowl, and stir a little to break up the yolks. Slowly pour in the heated milk mixture while whisking constantly, so as to temper the eggs and not cook them.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sachets of easyblend yeast, baking powder, mahleb, and salt. Make a well in the centre, and pour in the wet mixture. Stir until it forms a sticky dough. Pour onto a floured surface, and knead in additional flour as needed to make a more substantial dough. Knead for about 10 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl, and set in a warm place to rise for about 2 hours, or until doubled in size.

When the dough has doubled, punch down again, and let rise until doubled. It will only take about half as long this time.

Separate the dough into 5 even portions, then separate each of those into thirds. Roll each of those into ropes about 12 inches long. Plait sets of three ropes together, pinching the ends to seal, and tucking them under for a better presentation. Place the loaves onto baking sheets. Loaves should be spaced 4 inches apart. Set in a warm place to rise until your finger leaves an impression behind when you poke the loaf gently.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Brush the loaves with beaten egg, and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake for 25 minutes in the preheated oven, or until nicely golden brown all over.

Why don’t women drink beer?

July 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

I will certainly be drinking more beer after my recent Adnams of Southwold brewery tour. After all, what could be more refreshing than a pint of bitter on a warm summer’s evening? This particular beauty was pulled at the Red Lion on South Green in Southwold, Suffolk:

My fellow guests on the brewery tour were exclusively male and sadly mostly fitted the real ale stereotype of bellies, beards and sandals. It doesn’t need to be this way as, happily, our guide for the tour was master brewer Belinda, a no-nonsense microbiology graduate who seemed to have found her perfect niche in life. In a little over an hour, she gently demystified the brewing process throwing in a dashes of chemistry, history and folklore for good measure.

We started with the simple list of ingredients for making beer – malted barley, hops, water and yeast.

Barley first. Appropriately, the most commonly used variety is named “Tipple”. The degree to which the barley is roasted is key to the character of the finished beer – think of how different roast beans produce differently flavoured coffee. Here are some different samples of barley with different degrees of roasting:

My favourite for munching on (we were encouraged throughout to smell, taste and of course drink) was the enticingly named crystal malt (so called because the processing of the barley results in a glassy crystallised finish to the grain or endosperm as the experts call it). Crystal malt contributes biscuity, caramel flavours to the finished beer.

On to the hops. This was the part of the brewing process I particularly wanted to understand. I can’t count the times I have heard someone sniff their freshly pulled pint of beer and enthuse over its hoppy characteristics when all I could distinguish was a general beery smell. What would a hop smell like in isolation?

Belinda tipped a generous heap of dried hops onto a napkin on the table and invited us to smell them. I was first in the queue, almost sticking my nose into the heap, inhaling deeply. I smelt…absolutely nothing!

Belinda explained that the hop’s aroma is concentrated in the resin which is concentrated in the base of the dried flower in areas which have a brighter yellow colour. Rub these between your finger and thumb and the aroma is released…aah yes it worked. What I smelt was something a little floral, aromatic, even just a little acrid. A bit like the crushed leaves of pineapple mayweed or even camomile flowers. So this was the characteristic hop aroma I’d wondered about all these years.

I did some homework after the tour. Harold McGee’s amazing food science book “On Food and Cooking” (Heston Blumenthal’s bible) didn’t let me down when it came to hops. He explains that hops (Latin name Humulus lupulus) provide 2 different flavour elements in beer: bitterness from phenolic alpha acids (humulone and lupulone) in its resins and aroma from its essential oils. The aroma of ordinary hops is dominated by the terpene myrcene also found in bayleaf and verbena whereas other more exotic hop varieties are dominated by the more delicate humulene, also other terpenes such as pinene, limonene and citral which give piny and citrus aromas to the hops.

There’s a balance to be struck with hops – the bitterness only comes out after prolonged heating of the brew which of course destroys the aroma. To give the finished beer more aroma, a practice known as dry-hopping is used which means that hop pellets (they are most conveniently used in this form) are thrown into the brew after it has been boiled and they slowly infuse their flavours and aromas at a lower temperature. So beer has a lot in common with herb teas and tisanes and you can’t get much more ladylike than that!

Now for the yeast. This is perhaps the most mysterious of the ingredients. At Adnams they use their own special natural yeast strain which has been kept alive for years. It’s not the same as regular baking yeast but has in fact been used successfully for breadmaking by a Lowestoft baker in the past.

Finally the water, the simplest of the ingredients. Adnams now use the town supply carbon-filtered to remove unwanted chlorine rather than, as previously, water from their own well. Calcium chloride is added to the water to act as a catalyst for the various necessary enzyme processes.

In overview, the process for making beer is relatively straightforward: after all it used to be produced in the home as women’s work in the mediaeval period. It can be divided into 4 stages:

1. Preparing the wort. A mash is made with water and malt which is soaked for 1 and 1/2 hours then heated for 3 hours to produce a sweet coloured liquid which is drawn of ready for stage 2.

2. Boiling the wort – hops are added and the liquid is boiled both to add bitterness from the hops and to inactivate the malt enzymes and so fix the sugar and carbohydrate levels in the mix. The liquid is drawn off and sent to the fermentation tank ready for stage 3.

3. Fermentation. Yeast is added and the mixture is kept at a controlled temperature for fermentation to occur over a period of 2-10 days. During this period the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and its byproduct carbon dioxide which gives the beer its fizz. Top fermentation is carried out at a higher temperature (up to 25 degrees C) and gives the beer a strong acidic flavour with fruity spicy notes. Fermentation at lower temperatures produces beer with a drier, crisper flavour and bready notes.

4. Clarification and conditioning
The yeast foam and from fermentation and dead yeast cells are removed by a combination of filtration and fining (adding an agent that attracts and collects the detritus in the beer making it easy to remove the whole lot in a lump. Intriguingly, isinglass, a gelatine like substance derived from fish swim bladders (originally sturgeon) is still used by Adnams as the preferred fining agent. Technically then vegetarians can’t drink beer. With a degree of pragmatism overcoming principle, it seems that the beers can still be deemed suitable for vegetarians as the fish derived content of the beer is so small.

The beer is then transferred to cask or bottle and the bottled beers are pasteurised to increase the shelf life. Secondary fermentation occurs in the cask so it is a living thing with a shelf life of just a few weeks hence the importance of a publican who knows how to keep his beer properly.

So, 4 ingredients, 4 processes – sounds simple but 8 building blocks can give you a seemingly infinite variety of outcomes. Think of music built on 8 notes of the scale or DNA built from just 4 bases…

Going back to my opening question, why don’t women drink beer, I think much of it is in the marketing. Scanning the list of names they give a distinctly masculine old fashioned wartime image (Bombardier, Spitfire, Barnstormer…) or else give an impression of a warm cloudy brew fit only for yokels (Tanglefoot, Waggle Dance, Grumpling). There are so many different beer styles out there that there must be something for everyone. If we could cut the old fart marketing and come up with something cleaner, simpler and more explanatory I think the breweries could be on to a winner in terms of opening up a whole new market beyond the CAMRA afficionados.

And yes, the tour did conclude with a comprehensive tasting of the Adnams range – drink all you like within reason!

World cup final sandwich

July 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Looking for a snack to sustain you through the World Cup final next week? It’s looking as if it might be Germany v Holland, a grudge match if ever there was one, making Germany v England seem like a friendly….Now that England is out of the running, it’s possible to enjoy the football and contemplate eating whilst doing so.

I decided to take my inspiration from America, the nation of the sporting snack par excellence. I fished out the Superbowl edition of American food magazine Bon Appétit and decided to recreate the epic looking grilled cheese short rib sandwich with caramelized onions featured on the front cover.

It turns out that this is a speciality of restaurant Joan’s On Third in Los Angeles and was featured in the “RSVP” section of the magazine where readers’ favourite restaurant recipes are tracked down. Joan’s On Third looks amazing New York deli meets California cuisine. Imagine having somewhere like that on your doorstep…I digress. Back to the sandwich for which I give the full recipe below. Truthfully, the recipe is a little involved but the beef and onions can be prepared in advance ready to assemble into a sandwich at the right moment.

My first problem was finding out what the heck a short rib was. First stop David Rosengarten’s “It’s All American Food”. He says “Interest in cooking short ribs at home has been rekindled by the short rib boom in trendy restaurants. Americans across the map have rediscovered the comforting deliciousness of collagen-rich cuts of meat…melting down in a pot… into soft and buttery puddles of protein.” OK I get the picture and my appetite is whetted but what is it?

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall to the rescue in his “Meat Book”: it’s a small rack of ribs from the flank, ie the forequarter just behind the front leg. This is the cow version of the more familiar rack of pork spare ribs and shares with that cut its sticky, juicy characteristics best brought out by a long slow cooking. Happily, my local butcher in Hale knew the cut (sometimes referred to as Jacob’s Ladder) and, with a couple of days’ notice, came up with the goods – a Desperate Dan super-sized rack of ribs which he helpfully sawed into manageable chunks.

Here they are, ready to begin the recipe which follows:

Recipe for grilled cheese and short rib sandwiches with pickled caramelized onions and arugula (rocket)

Serves 8

Ingredients – short ribs

5 pounds beef short ribs
1/2 stick (4 oz) butter
3 celery stalks, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion chopped
1 and 1/4 cups (10 fl oz ) red wine
1/2 cup (4 fl oz) low salt beef stock
1/2 cup (4 fl oz) medium dry sherry
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 bay leaves
1 large fresh thyme sprig

Here are my ingredients ready to go. I used all-American Quady’s Vya Vermouth instead of the sherry as that’s what I happened to have open.

Ingredients – pickled caramelized onions

1 tablespoon butter
2 large red onions, halved and thinly sliced crosswise
4 and 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 and 1/2 teaspoons sugar

Ingredients – final assembly

Softened butter
16 slices country-style crusty white bread (or a crusty sourdough if you like)
12 oz Petit Basque or Monterey Jack cheese, sliced (or your favourite semi hard cheese suitable for melting- Taleggio would be good; I used a stunning unpasteurised Gorwydd Caerphilly)
4 cups (generous handfuls) baby arugula (rocket)

SHORT RIBS. Sprinkle beef with salt and pepper. Melt butter in a large wide pot over medium-high heat. Working in 2 batches, cook beef until browned, about 6 minutes per batch. Transfer to large rimmed baking sheet (to catch the juices). Add celery, carrots and onions to pot and sauté until beginning to soften and brown, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add wine, broth, sherry, garlic, bay leaves and thyme sprig; bring to boil, scraping up browned bits. Season with salt and pepper. Return ribs to pot, propping up on sides and arranging in single layer.

Here’s what they look like at this stage:

Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer 1 hour. Using tongs, turn the ribs over in the pot. Cover and simmer until ribs are tender and sauce is very thick, occasionally rearranging ribs in pot to prevent sticking, about 1 and 1/2 hours longer.

This is what the cooked ribs look like:

Uncover and cool 30 minutes. Transfer ribs to work surface. Discard bay leaves and thyme sprig. Spoon off fat from sauce in pot. Remove meat from bones; discard bones. Cut meat into 3/4 to 1 inch pieces, trimming any fat. Return meat to pot. DO AHEAD. Can be made 2 days ahead. Chill until cold; cover and keep chilled. Rewarm just until lukewarm before using.


Melt butter in large skillet (heavy-based frying pan) over medium-high heat. Add onions, sprinkle with salt and sauté until beginning to brown, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes. Add vinegar and sugar and cook until almost all vinegar is absorbed, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to microwave-safe bowl; cool. DO AHEAD. Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover; chill. Microwave in 15 second intervals until lukewarm before using.

ASSEMBLY. Line 2 large baking sheets with waxed paper. Butter 16 slices bread. Lay 8 slices, buttered side down onto the the prepared sheet. Divide the short rib mixture among the bread slices. Divide cheese among sandwiches. Spoon onions over sandwiches. Place handful of arugula (rocket) atop the onions. Top with remaining 8 bread slices, buttered side up. DO AHEAD. Can be prepared 1 hour ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and store at room temperature.

Heat 2 large skillets (frying pans) over medium heat. Working in batches, cook sandwiches until bread is golden brown and cheese melts, about 3 minutes per side.

Here are my sandwiches in the pan. I slipped the pans into a 180 degree C oven for 3 or 4 minutes to complete the cooking without burning the bread.

Transfer cooked sandwiches to work surface. Cut each in half on diagonal. Transfer to plates and serve.

And Voilà! Here is my completed sandwich ready for consumption during the game. Your favourite beer is the perfect accompaniment. Awesome. May the best team win.

In celebration of Chopin

July 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

2010 has been a big year for devotees of the composer Frédéric Chopin as it is the 200th anniversary of his birth. There have been all sorts of celebrations of his music going on all over the world. Last month I was lucky enough to be able to host a Chopin evening at home with my friend Andrew Wilde performing some of Chopin’s music. The format of the evening was for 20 friends to come over for drinks and canapés with Andrew playing a mini-recital for 20-25 minutes. Andrew is a concert pianist and was preparing for his all-Chopin Bridgewater Hall recital.

Given the time of year (late spring) and the weather (glorious), we decided to go for a multi-sensory experience focusing on a high point in Chopin’s life, the seven summers he spent at Nohant between 1839 and 1846. Nohant was his lover George Sand’s country house in the Berry district of central France. Chopin composed some of his finest music there, inspired by the beautiful and peaceful surroundings away from the hustle and bustle of Paris.

Here is a picture of the exterior of George Sand’s house at Nohant which we visited last summer:

For our Manchester-based Chopin evening, Andrew would take care of the music but it was over to me to take care of the visual, smell and of course taste side of things. In terms of the visuals, I went for flowers and candles, including some potted hydrangeas outside, just like in the picture. Favourite shop L’Occitane helped provide a subtle hint of cherry blossom room fragrance to help conjure up the rural French idyll.

Now for the menu. I offered the following drinks:

Kir Berrichonne – an unusual kir which is a speciality of the Berry region – it’s crème de mûre (blackberry rather than the more usual blackcurrant) mixed with chilled red wine – a local pinot noir. It sounds weird, but trust me, it’s good. As my friend Vivienne put it, “like a mulled wine for the summer”

Kir Royale – the same crème de mûre but mixed with champagne, after all this was a birthday celebration for Chopin

Citron pressé – the ultimate French café soft drink

Raspberry and rose cordial – one of Belvoir’s cordials – a non-alcoholic version of the kir

Volvic mineral water – the Volvic spring is a couple of hours drive south from Nohant in the volcano country of the Auvergne. We visited the Auvergne volcanoes on the trip to France which took in Nohant last summer. Here am Itogether with son George drinking directly from the Volvic source:

For the canapés, after a little research, I came up with the following:

Rillettes de canard with cornichons on toasted French bread

The classic rillettes du Tours is a speciality of central France and is made from slow-cooked shredded pork belly. The duck version is similar and equally good. The duck shreds very easily with a pair of forks and so, once the long slow cooking in the oven is done, there is very little for the cook to do.

Fresh goat cheese and chives on toasted French bread

Goat cheese can be found all over France but is a particular speciality of the Berry region.

Mini croque-monsieurs – a French café classic. It’s always nice to have something hot when serving nibbles with drinks. I give my recipe for the cheese mixture (in fact a modified Welsh rarebit!) which forms the foundation of a croque- monsieur and instructions for how to turn it into a toasted sandwich below.

Pistachio macaroons and madeleines – it feels good to round-off the evening with something sweet. Dainty macaroons and madeleines seem to marry well with the refined nature of Chopin’s compositions.

Here are several batches of madeleines fresh from the oven cooling on a wire rack. They are quick and easy to make and, though I say so myself, put the Bonne Maman ones to shame. The one thing you have to do is invest in a couple sets of moulds. The flexible silicone ones which are on offer nowadays work just fine.

The music Andrew played that evening was:

Piano sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, Opus 35 – 1st movement only
Berceuse in D flat, Opus 57
Polonaise in A flat, Opus 35

It was amazing to hear our modest upright piano transformed at the hands of a virtuoso pianist! I hope that my efforts to recreate the mood of Nohant helped to enhance the music and sense of atmosphere that evening.

To conclude, here are the recipes I promised earlier:

Recipe for Welsh Rarebit

This is a really useful recipe which I discovered in Gary Rhodes’ cookbook “Rhodes Around Britain” published back in 1994 to accompany the BBC TV series of the same name. It makes a very superior cheese on toast, which cut into small pieces makes a delectable and easy canapé to serve with drinks. The recipe requires 1 and 1/2 lb cheese which sounds like a lock, but as the original recipe advises, this is really the minimum for a successful mixture. It keeps well in the fridge for a week or so and also freezes well.


700g (1 and 1/2 lb) mature hard cheese, grated – Cheddar in the original recipe but I used Comté for my French version
150 ml (5 fl oz) milk
25g (1 oz) plain flour
50g (2 oz) fresh white breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon English mustard powder (I used 2 tablespoons prepared smooth Dijon mustard for French version)
2 shakes Worcester sauce (I used an alternative flavouring of grated nutmeg and a tablespoon of dry vermouth for my French version)
salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste (very little or no salt will be needed depending on the type of cheese used)
2 eggs
2 egg yolks

Put the grated cheese into a medium heavy based saucepan and add the milk. Slowly melt them together over a low heat but do not allow the mix to boil as this will separate the cheese, a frustrating not to say expensive mistake! When the mixture is smooth and just begins to bubble, add the flour, breadcrumbs and mustard and cook for a few minutes, stirring, over a low heat until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan and begins to form a ball shape. Add the Worcestershire sauce (or alternative flavourings) salt (if necessary) and pepper and leave to cool.

When cold, place the mixture in a food processor, turn on the motor and slowly add the whole eggs and yolks. You can beat vigorously with a wooden spoon instead if you don’t have a food processor but I haven’t ever tried the manual method. Once the eggs have been mixed in, chill for a few hours before using.

Recipe for Croque-Monsieur

A recipe of my own devising based on a Frenchified Welsh rarebit (see above) and memories of many croque monsieurs eaten in French cafés.


For each sandwich:

2 slices good white bread, generously buttered
1 slice cooked ham
ball of rarebit mixture about the size of a small tangerine
1 tablespoon finely grated Comté cheese

Make a ham sandwich with the buttered bread and slice of cooked ham. Take the ball of rarebit mixture and flatten it into a rectangle the same size as the sandwich. Place on top of the sandwich and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Bake in an oven preheated to 180 degrees C for 8-10 minutes until the bread is lightly toasted and the rarebit mixture has puffed up a little and is golden brown. Trim of the crusts and cut into squares or fingers for a dainty canapé, otherwise just cut into half and serve for a lunchtime snack.

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