Playing Tag Along

2016-2017-tag

Okay, I’m taking part in a game of tag just because I can and because it’s fun. I was tagged by Dippy Dotty Girl who blogs at http://www.thetravellingdiaryofadippydottygirl.com.

Describe your 2016 in three words

Reducing an entire year to just three words is going to be tricky, but here goes:-

  • Busy
  • Rewarding
  • Fun

I try to pack as much as I can into each year, time is a finite commodity. I maintain the key is plenty of planning and preparation which is something I love doing. So you’ll be unsurprised to learn that much of 2017 is already planned out and it’s going to be another amazing year.

Two people who made 2016 what it was

Life is what YOU make it. So that would be my beloved and I.

The most beautiful place you visited in 2016 and why you chose it

We stayed in so many lovely places. Some for the first time, while others were revisits. However, given that we spent the start and finish of 2016 in Australia, I guess it gets my vote. Now Australia’s a big place, and I’ve only visited a very small part of it, nonetheless, I put together a mosaic of some of my favourite spots.

The most delicious dish you have tasted in 2016

Funnily enough that was probably something I cooked for friends for dinner, a lobster curry from Adam Handling’s Smile or Get Out of the Kitchen. Mine didn’t look quite as beautiful as his but it tasted spectacular. I had a bit of a wobble while cooking it and his restaurant, The Frog in London E1, kindly responded to my queries – how’s that for service?

Chicken & Lobster Yellow Curry by Adam Handling (image: Tim Green)
Chicken & Lobster Yellow Curry by Adam Handling (image: Tim Green)

An event which left its mark upon you in 2016 (even a global event counts) 

Brexit – nuff said.

The finest purchase you made in 2016 (and if you want you can link up a photo of it)

I’m always on the hunt for the perfect (for me) pair of trousers and I found them in a shop in Chicago. It’s a German company, has been around for a while but had slipped under my radar. Since buying my first pair in February 2016, I have acquired many more, along with some tops and dresses. I’m what might be called a serial purchaser, when I find something I like, I buy in bulk. Probably won’t need to worry about buying another pair of trousers ever again!

Three good intentions for 2017 

  • Work less, ride more
  • Spend more time in the kitchen
  • Make the most of every day

One place you want to visit in 2017

I’ve promised myself that we’ll go and watch another MotoGP race this year, either at Catalunya or Mugello

One dish you want to eat in 2017

There’s lots of dishes I’d like to be able to eat but I’ve kinda accepted I’m going to have to stick with the fish eating vegan regime from now on if I want to remain healthy. So my dish would be a great plate of seafood – lobster, octopus, oysters, prawns, clams, mussels.

I would like to Tag………

I’m going to follow the example set by my tagger. I tag whoever reads this and wants to do this tag. Your choice but looking back on 2016 might just bring a smile to your face as you recall recent fond memories.

Rules for this Tag

  1. Mention the creator of the blog:  David from The Guy Who Said Always No
  2. Use the image that you find in this article
  3. Mention the blogger who has chosen you
  4. Answer the questions
  5. Mention 9 blogger friends and let them know through a comment on their blog

My work is done here. Now it’s your turn. Have a great day!

Postcard from London

Since moving to France I have made infrequent trips back to the UK. Far fewer than I originally anticipated. This was my annual flying visit to the dentist and hygienist. Yes, they have those in France too – well not hygienists. My dentist is a personal friend and, in return for the occasional dinner, takes great care of my teeth. Meanwhile, my hygienist is simply one of the best in the business and well worth every pound I pay her. I initially planned the trip to also include a visit to my middle sister to ooh and aah over her remodelling of the family home.  However, it’s over budget and over schedule so that’ll be next year’s flying visit.

When I left Nice, the weather was warm and the sun was shining. We arrived in Gatwick to overcast skies. I immediately wanted to return. My beloved headed to Heathrow and a flight to Milan. Yes, I know it’s only three hour drive up the road from us, but the London trip had been booked before the trip to Milan. He returned the following day in time for dinner with my dentist. Meanwhile, I headed to my brother in law’s. I usually stay with my youngest sister but she was in France!

Having lived in London for over 20 years, there’s very little I haven’t seen. Like all great cities, it’s best enjoyed on foot. Curiosity got the better of me and  I decided to visit my old stomping grounds of Bayswater, Notting Hill, Marylebone and Mayfair. While much has changed, many of my favourite spots are still reassuringly flourishing. The weather was overcast and decidedly chilly though everyone around me was resolutely holding onto summer in short-sleeved or sleeveless outfits. Footsore but not weary, late afternoon I travelled  south of the river to my dentist.

frog2

Once the condition of my teeth had been proclaimed stable – a good thing – we left by tube for dinner at The Frog, Adam Handling’s new restaurant in Whitechapel. It’s a wee bit tricky to locate but I enjoyed the scenic wander around E1 which has mushroomed since I left London. As I suspected, this is a hip, happening place favoured by the 25-40 crowd so we definitely increased the average age of the diners. The restaurant has a great vibe but more importantly an open kitchen and I was sitting in pole position. I left my beloved and my dentist to chatter about all matters dental while I observed what was going on in the kitchen.

image

imageMy dentist is a fish-eating vegetarian while I’m a fish eating vegan so (sadly) the great value tasting menu was hors course. Nonetheless, the kitchen was happy to adapt two courses to meet the strictures of my regime. I had charred broccoli to start with followed by octopus! The title of the former dish’s title belied its delicious flavour while the main course was the best octopus I’ve eaten and I’ve eaten A LOT of octopus this year.

frog-dinner

The boys greatly enjoyed all their three courses. The portions aren’t large so you can easily eat three courses. It was a delicious meal and The Frog got a huge thumbs up from all three of us.

cliveden

I spent the following day at Cliveden catching up with an old girlfriend who I first met back in 1980 while we were both training to be chartered accountants. How time has flown! While she’s visited me a couple of times in France, her job and a demanding pooch preclude regular visits. We enjoyed a glass (or two) of our favourite beverage in the bar overlooking the manicured gardens. I find the main house a wee bit overpowering, so we ate in The Grill. Fortunately the sun was shining so we could walk off our admittedly light lunch by strolling around the splendid grounds.

whitechapel

My beloved was unexpectedly available on Thursday lunchtime and expressed a desire to visit the Whitechapel Gallery. The gallery is just up the road from where I used to work and I often had off-site meetings there. My beloved is somewhat conservative in his tastes particularly when it comes to art. Would he be prepared to hang it on the wall or display it in the apartment? If the answer’s yes, then he likes it. However, much modern conceptual art is not for display in a domestic setting and it’s often intended to provoke. The gallery is small and having already been fed in its café, my beloved suffered the exhibits. I could tell he wasn’t won over when he likened it to the exhibition we saw in New York’s Guggenheim where a Colombian artist had poured concrete into a number of pieces of furniture, as a protest against the regime, not the furniture.

arnie1

As I took my leave, I was tempted to smuggle my nephew’s dog in my handbag and take him back to France. Indeed Arnie seemed keen to join me after I’d told him the weather was soooo much better though I suspect this was because he’d been abandoned at his grandparents while his owners were enjoying two weeks in Barbados.  Before going our separate ways, we had brunch at Waterloo before my beloved headed to Paddington and a train for Cardiff and I took a train to Gatwick for my homeward journey. The few days in London had been lovely, despite the weather, but I was happy to be back home.

homel

 

Who’s going to win?

Okay, hands up, I’m a sucker for reality cookery shows. One of my favourites is MasterChef: The Professionals. It’s on UK television and the format is pretty much replicated throughout the globe in one form or another. Interestingly in the French equivalent, it’s diners who choose the winner not the four resident judges, who are all renowned chefs with Michelin stars aplenty.

MasterChef judges

The series starts with the judges setting the competitors a skill’s test. Now, I’m what you might call a better than average home cook. My friends’ joke that I have a “Michelin” star – I wish – but I’m always shocked at how many of the contestants don’t know or understand the basics. I appreciate not all are classically trained; some are “self-taught” like one of my favourite chefs, Raymond Blanc. Of course, Raymond had the benefit of a childhood in France and a mother who showed him how to cook.

Understandably, and sadly, some of the chefs fall prey to nerves and their skills desert them. However, the kitchen is a very pressured environment and, if you can’t take the heat, then get out of the kitchen or, in this case, the competition.

Having faced the skills test, contestants then have an opportunity for redemption with their “signature” dish. Something tried and endlessly tested which should delight the judges. Unfortunately too many hide behind chemistry-set cookery with foams and water baths, neither of which impress the judges.

Too many competitors talk about “pushing boundaries,” being daring, and experimenting with interesting flavours. Down this path lies disaster. I say this as a seasoned watcher of the programme and someone who’s accurately picked out the winner from the first round every year, save one .

My one failure was 2013 where I had predicted Adam Handling would win. And he would have done so if Michael Roux had not expected more from him than the other two finalists. Yes, he was Michael’s favourite too. However, he’s not fared too badly since and has garnered plenty of awards for himself and his restaurant.

Each year a particular technique or ingredient seems to pop up. This year it’s honeycomb which has cropped up in sweet and savoury dishes aplenty. Now I like honeycomb, it’s easy to prepare and can offer an interesting taste and/or texture in desserts which it did yesterday evening for one of the successful semi-finalists. But guys, with lamb and fish, really?

MasterChef Dish

We’ve just gotten past my favourite bit of the programme – the head-to-head semi-finals – where two (or three) contestants take part in the day’s service in a notable restaurant with a well-known chef. This culminates  in them cooking the chef’s signature dish for them to taste and critique. Then it’s back to MasterChef HQ to cook two kick-ass, show stopping dishes to show not only what they’ve learnt from the previous days’ experience but also from taking part in the show. The winner makes it into the last round.

This year’s programme has re-awakened my desire for a blow torch. Sadly my beloved has forbidden me to buy one. Quite rightly, he fears I’ll burn down the kitchen. Given my history, can you blame him? I could buy a small domestic version, but where would be the fun in that?

I appreciate I have avoided the elephant in the room. Who’s going to win the title this year? I think it’s still all up for grabs though I do have a favourite. Who is it? Ah, that would be telling!

Christmas Day Postscript: Just watched the final episode on iPlayer and, I was right, my favourite chef Mark Stinchcombe won. Scott and Nick were worthy opponents but Mark’s a star now and one to watch for the future. Mark, if you need an editor for your first  book, just get in touch. It’d be a pleasure!

Images courtesy of BBC MasterChef: The Professionals

 

The clock’s ticking

I don’t feel the need to celebrate my birthday and I guess that’s partly a reflection of my advancing years. Of course, when your birthday’s close to Christmas, it does tend to take the shine off of it. Additionally, the date generally conflicts with my beloved’s business activities. As a result, in earlier years, I’ve spent birthdays either on my lonesome  – cue violins – or with his sales team. I spent this year’s birthday with my hygienist and dentist – a novel way to celebrate!

I visit my hygienist once a year which is enough to keep my gnashers and, more importantly, my gums in tip-top condition. American by birth, she’s no run of the mill practitioner, she’s one of the best around and operates out of a swanky London address. My teeth always look several shades lighter after she’s done her worst best and they feel so smooth and clean.

Next up, a quick trip across town to my dentist who had come up with a novel way to make my front teeth look less obviously crossed. The man’s a genius! My teeth look so much better but no one’s yet worked out why or how – a result. My pearly whites were now deserving of an outing, but where?

When I lived in London, I used to maintain a list of hot restaurants and hotels, all based on personal recommendation. It was a much prized list – think Trip Advisor, but so much better! Business colleagues and friends would call me to get a copy of the list, or better, a suggestion before booking their trips to London. Of course, once you no longer live in London, the list quickly loses its lustre.

There was one restaurant I wanted to visit, Adam Handling’s at the Caxton Hotel in Victoria. I’d admired his cooking on Professional MasterChef, bought his recent cookery book “Smile or Get out of the Kitchen” and tried a number of his recipes. But I’d decided, it was no substitute for the real thing. I booked a table for three. Yes, I took my dentist along!

Any place that welcomes you with a free glass of wine as you cross their threshold is going to get my vote. The staff were warm, welcoming and contributed greatly to the hotel and restaurant’s ambience. While we awaited the arrival of my beloved, my dentist made short work of the delicious nibbles served with our (free) drinks in the bar.

Wild Sea Bass  - here one minute, gone the next!
Wild Sea Bass – here one minute, gone the next!

The meal exceeded my impossibly high expectations. I got to try nine of Adam’s fantastic dishes – now you understand why I took my dentist. I also learned that my version of Adam’s Pistachio cake was spot on.  I did take a few photographs but they were largely of plates quickly and greedily licked clean. There’s no picture of my starter as I’d already wolfed down the meltingly unctuous pork belly with octopus before getting my iPhone out to snap my main course and dessert.

Pistachio Cake with Artichoke Iceream - heavenly
Pistachio Cake with Artichoke Ice Cream – heavenly

The restaurant was busy but even so I blagged a visit to the kitchen. A haven of tranquility as the chefs calmly cooked and plated up. It was a small, well-ordered kitchen, not that much bigger than mine, with an obviously  happy and well-trained crew. I’ll be going again on my next visit to London, there are dishes still to try on the small, beautifully designed and crafted menu. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to work my way through Adam’s recipes at home.  Of course, don’t just take my word for it, the restaurant has just picked up it’s first (of many) awards.

Bookatable

 

Postscript: Last week-end, a crowd of us got together down on the beach to eat Galette des Rois and other sweet treats – a French tradition in January. I took the edges from the two cakes I’d previously made from Adam’s book out of the freezer and turned them into cake truffles using a recipe in another favourite, much-thumbed cookery book, Momofuku’s Milk Bar.

Melting mouthfulls
Melting mouthful

I mixed the Pistachio cake with a little of my homemade lemon-curd and then coated the small truffle-sized balls in white melted chocolate and milk-crumbs. I mixed the Hazelnut and Burnt Butter cake with some liquid cheesecake and rolled the result in 70% dark chocolate and chocolate crumbs. It was a wonderfully messy job – thank Heavens for disposable latex gloves. They were a BIG hit. A clear case of “waste not, want not.”

 

Let me check

It’s not unusual for our friends in France to ring us just the day before to invite us round for a meal. This charming spontaneity always rather amuses me. Indeed, if it had happened while I was still in the UK, I would have assumed I wasn’t first pick and that someone else had dropped out at the last moment. No so here.

Given my beloved’s relentless circumnavigation of the globe or, in recent weeks, long trips back to the UK, I can’t operate with quite the same insouciance even though I pride myself on being able to produce a meal for at least four at the drop of  hat. That said, I’ll quite often invite friends round for lunch or dinner during the week while he’s away but will serve what I would typically eat during the week, albeit with a dessert. I often won’t bother with a starter, just some nibbles to chow on in the kitchen while we’re chatting and I’m putting the finishing touches to the meal.

Here, last minute invites, particularly those during the summer months, when there’s a crowd, often involves everyone pitching in and preparing a course. Guidance is, of course, required to achieve some sort of cohesion. But, even so, pot luck seems to work out just fine and a good time is always had by all.

There are times however when I like to make it more of a special occasion, particularly in the run up to the Festive season. Additionally, we have more space available indoors for entertaining than we have outside. However, our friends’ gardens will trump a balcony every time when the weather’s fine.

Having friends round also gives me an excuse to try out a couple of new recipes. Accepted wisdom says you shouldn’t experiment but there are plenty of dishes more appropriate for a crowd than just the two of us. The other great thing here is that people generally eat everything. At first, I used to enquire if there was anything my guests didn’t eat but after being assured countless times that they eat everything, I’ve stopped asking. Their children are the same and will happily eat anything I put before them.

A lot of the meals I prepare are ones that cook happily in the oven while I’m out riding my bike or can be quickly assembled or reheated on my return, thanks to plenty of forward planning and preparation. But a festive luncheon or dinner party is different. I revel at the prospect of several days’ preparation in the kitchen beforehand, not forgetting poring through my countless cookery books to choose what I’m going to cook. We’re talking three courses pre-dinner nibbles, petit fours and maybe even goodie bags of edibles to take home – the full nine yards!

It usually takes a while for a cookery book to become a well-thumbed, ingredient spattered favourite – I know I should get one of those acetate holders. Some, however, become cherished overnight. My most recent acquisition is Adam Handling’s “Smile or get out of the Kitchen“. For those of you who don’t know, he came to prominence on MasterChef: the Professionals in 2013 as one of the three finalists and many people’s, me included, favourite to land the title. He didn’t win but it quite rightly hasn’t stopped his ascendancy.

The recipes are all illustrated so you can see what the final dish is supposed to look like. I’m not sure I’ll be able to achieve his level of precision but I do want to try and match the flavours I’ve no doubt he achieves. I’ve read the book from cover to cover, several times, always a good sign.

A little slice of heaven
A little slice of heaven

I first made his pistachio cake for a friend’s birthday party. The recipe reminded me of one of my more popular bakes, Tarta de Santiago, and proved even more delicious. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photograph of the finished cake. Luckily, I kept back a couple of the edges which I had cut off to neaten the cake and, if I say so myself, it was scrummy.

Looks innocent but packs a flavour punch
Looks innocent but packs a flavour punch

Next up was Adam’s recipe for celeriac veloute, or soup to you and me. I love nothing better than making a big pot of soup to keep me going for a couple of days during the week. This was so delicious that I was sorely tempted to slurp it all down in one go. Fortunately, it’s too rich to do that so my beloved also got to sample it. He immediately said it was the best soup he’s ever had – praise indeed –  and I remembered to take a photo!

Now, you might be wondering why I’ve only tried two of his recipes. Well, when I test new recipes, I like to take my time, something that’s recently been in very short supply. But Adam’s recipes are going to be providing the inspiration for all my December Sunday lunches.

You can buy his book at www.adamhandling.com where you’ll find links to his restaurant – well worth a visit – and his chocolate. I can personally recommend the chocolate which I foolishly shared with my beloved. Won’t be doing that again!